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Divine Atheism

Raising kids Catholic in a small Alabama town is no easy feat. But my parents tried, even though I gleaned most of what knew about Catholicism from Father Dowling Mysteries.

There was a constant battle of wills between The Book and my reality–how I felt about religion, what I knew about myself. And from that dissonance sprung an enveloping isolation, where I came to prefer rational proof over tenuous faith. But like a good god-fearing marionette, I performed the requisite rites of passage, leaving choice out of it and knowing little of what–if anything–lay outside the sphere of religiosity.

And while I came to see religion as an immovable piece on my youth’s chess board, my liberal parents did encourage independence and self-exploration. Without that slight sense of empowerment, I probably would’ve begrudgingly resigned myself to a religious life. But even though I’d been saddled with Catholicism, it acted as one of the catalysts for me embracing difference, rather than shunning or frighting from it.

Coupled with my family’s left-leaning sociopolitical bent, Catholicism framed my family as spiritual pariahs among the town’s predominantly Baptist and Methodist population. And from that I derived satisfaction; we were different, and difference unnerves people. After I plastered a Darwin fish on my car senior year, I became acutely aware of how little it took to shake someone’s faith, and how much misinformation my peers had been fed about human evolution.

But after defending my legged fish–explaining my position and, in turn, asking basic questions and entreaties for proof supporting their assertions–most would falter and defensively default to a cliched, faith-based rationale. And because of the anger that my questions often elicited, I learned it was best not to make additional waves in a stream where the Jesus fish were always spawning, especially not in the psychologically-charged high school years.

So I went along with everything–knelt, made the sign of the cross, took communion–and behaved the way I was told God wanted me to.

***

With the shackles of high school loosed, I left for college to study anthropology. And I came to realize how culturally diverse the world really is, and how sheltered I’d been.

Still, I’d been so conditioned to attend Mass every Sunday that I found myself going through the motions in a foreign church with complete strangers. But one day, things just clicked; I got up mid-Mass, turned around, and walked out. A pew wasn’t where I belonged on Sunday. I needed to figure things out on my own terms.

So I opened myself to experience, tried to understand the various modes of thought in the realm of spirituality. But after friendly conversations with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, and wiccans I was still left wanting. It all seemed different, but so oddly similar. And I quickly learned how easily religion can be manipulated–like clay on a potter’s wheel, spun into whatever form, to satiate the aims of whomever spins the wheel. And so often with my spiritual friends, they weren’t the potter; they were the clay.

Perhaps it was the control freak in me, but I wanted to be the potter. Because, really, what was stopping me? My faith? I always thought faith was supposed to empower, not limit. For some, I’m sure it is a source of strength, a kaleidoscope of possibilities–and I think that’s wonderful. But my faith had been grafted on, and it never really took; it just sloughed off. And I realized that building one’s faith based upon what someone else–a family member or a stranger–teaches you isn’t building a faith in something greater; it’s building a faith based upon that person’s perspective.

It seemed so bizarrely reckless to me to base one’s spiritual life off of stories written by biased men. Because were they not also made of the same fallible flesh? How could they judge, and how could they author something that’d limit so many? Did they even mean for their words to limit others? And if so, why should they get the last word?

I kept asking so many questions. But all I received was push back, while my liberalized car received eggs, mud, and vomit.

***

Anthropology piqued my curiosity and engaged my interest in understanding how people filter life experiences–how they construct mental sieves to sift out the real from the imaginary, the tangible from the intangible. And how, mixed up in it all, a nebulous “faith” can drive a person to believe more in someone else, rather than in their own reflection.

That’s why I find atheism comforting. It’s about your self-reliance, your will to change things. So it’s always refreshing to see someone act as a proud foil to the constant talking heads droning on about deities working in mysteriously ways.

Like Rebecca Vitsmun, interviewed by Wolf Blitzer in the aftermath of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado. With her child tucked in her arms, Vitsmun tactfully responds to Blitzer’s “You gotta thank the Lord, right?” with “Actually, I’m an atheist.” When I first saw that, I was floored, mostly because it was amazing to see someone proud of who they are responding in such a way. Rather than being enraged, she remained calm and direct. Her simple comment was a gentle reminder to believers that atheists aren’t godless heathens devoid of moral compasses. And, much like the stickered car I saw yesterday, her comment reminded me that, as an atheist, I’m not alone.

Atheists, we're everywhere.

In lieu of attributing power to supernatural miracles or prayer, I find it in those who have confidence in rational explanations and scientific facts.

***

What most frustrates me as an atheist is that people don’t give themselves credit where it’s due. Instead, they chalk their efforts up to an omnipotent being ruling somewhere in the hereafter. But people make things happen. So many people wait their lives away hoping that their messiah will waltz up to their door, ring the bell, and show them the way to be happy and lead a fulfilling life. But sadly, people take life for granted–worrying more about the afterlife rather than what’s here and now, and what they can do to make things better.

Unfettering myself from religion is one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done. Because I’m not looking for divine intervention–a hand to come down–to give me meaning, or some divine prophecy to make me whole.

Making things whole, one human experience at a time.

What makes me whole is human connection–people helping and loving one another without expecting a divine reward.

People wanting to make someone whole–not being content on the sidelines with half, with spending a life foreshadowing the next.

People coming together to dig a well, rather than divining for water.

And finding common ground in the process.

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I Am Not Sporty Spice

Last weekend when my mom and sister visited, we all went to a bar and ate hamburgers with quasi-sexually explicit names and drank martinis with normal names. And watched early nineties music videos while trying to list off each of the Spice Girls.

And by the time our waiter–outfitted in naughty lederhosen–sidled up to deliver our deep-fried Snickers and bill tucked into a large red sequinned slipper, I’d finished imagining how many times Sporty Spice has criticized herself for not orchestrating a stage accident for Posh Spice, just so she could’ve had David Beckham to dandle for the rest of her life.

That, and I wondered if she’s since become a field hockey star.

All spice-centric synaptic misfires aside, our whole interchange got me thinking about sports, and how I’d always do whatever I could to avoid them.

***

Now, plenty of people have prattled on about how it seems that many gays want to swing a bat about as much as a cat wants to take a flea dip. But with so many sporty gays coming out these days, and allies alike showing their support, it’s clear that there’s plenty of room in sports arenas for fabulousness. And for limited notions of masculinity to be relegated to the proverbial dustbin.

Still, I’m about as likely to attend a sporting event as Bill O’Reilly is to snuggle with Rachel Maddow. But hey, it’s not like I’m knocking something I haven’t tried before. I’ve been there, done that, and nursed all of the associated wounds.

***

Maybe it was because the soccer ball always curved just enough to make contact with my face, but Opelika’s Pee Wee Soccer became my own personal bloodbath. I know what you’re thinking. Why is a gay complaining about balls to the face? Well, toward the end of that five year-long sportsy era, it got a little ridiculous. Because every single time any player would kick the ball, it’d ricochet off my face with a cringe-worthy bwalp.

The final blow to the ego was dealt by a kid named Costa–the most hulking guy on our team, whose leg power bordered on ridiculous.

I still remember everything slowing down: Costa’s kick; the ball flying, then curving slightly; running toward it, then suddenly realizing its trajectory; the bwalp; flipping backward from my forward momentum combined with the ball’s speed; seeing the grass-caked bottoms of my cleats while rounding out the flip; my massive wire rim glasses slowly falling in front of me; the hard, slightly moist ground as I landed on my stomach; and sudden stillness, followed by blood gushing out of my nose.

Then, the referee’s whistle. And me skittering to the sidelines–my battered nose swaddled in paper towels–no doubt lisping through the blood to facepalming team members, “Ay’em okahay, guhys!”

***

Softball wasn’t much better, mostly because I’d try my damndest to get it right–listen to the crew cut coach, follow her step-by-step instructions. Which was probably my problem. Instead of making it a fluid mental process, I insisted on deconstructing every step in robotic, punctuated fashion. Like the one time I hit the ball: I hit the ball; Wow, I hit the ball!; Okay, now, throw the bat; Run to first base. Suffice it to say I rarely made it to first base. And the umpire almost always got beaned by the bat.

NO! How many times do I have to tell you? You don’t throw the bat behind you. Off to the side. Off. To. The. Side!”

“Sorreh, coahch.”

“Next time you do that, you’re getting marked down! Take a seat.”

I’d sulked away to the sidelines, past the umpire rubbing his head.

***

Flag football was worse, mostly because the fledgling jocks always “forgot” the flag part, transforming it into pummel-the-bejesus-out-of-the-twiggy-kid ball. And while I did catch the ball one time–flinching as I did–I ran to the wrong end zone, thinking all the while my teammates were screaming for me, not at me.

But even when I’d be dragged to college football games and take my bulky Game Boy along, I’d still get nosebleeds from the altitude.

***

To this day, I’m convinced dodgeball is the realm of nascent sadists. Like Luhtha–the scariest failed sixth grader ever.

Since he’d failed a few times, he’d already gone through puberty and was a horrifying mass of a kid. So much so that fellow twigs and I would visibly shake as we’d hear him emerge from the basement locker room–his terrifying cackle reverberating off of the stairwell’s tiled wall.

And if his beady eyes narrowed on you–even if he didn’t have a ball in hand–it was best to just go limp and fake a seizure. Even still, you’d probably get hit in the nuts.

***

Years after my involvement in band shielded me from experiencing other sports-related foibles–and gifted me a front row seat to afternoon shirtless cross-country team runs–I still had to subject myself to certain rites of passage. Like hunting.

Now, my father is an avid hunter, and is probably the most considerate hunter ever. There’s no cowardly spot-lighting, or use of four wheelers to load and drag the kills; he hauls them out of the woods himself–by hand–after a clean bow or gunshot. Unfortunately for him, I never really took up hunting. I’d been sort of okay with fishing, even though I still sucked at it.

The avid fisherman.

But there comes a time in many southern gay boys’ lives where you can’t side-sashay that age old rite of harvesting your first deer.

So there I was, sitting in the tree stand with my dad, praying to any deity that’d hear me that a deer wouldn’t come out. Mostly because I was worried I’d screw it up and disappoint my dad. Or worse, mortally wound the deer in some ghastly fashion and have to use more than one shot. And for a while, I thought I was in the clear. The sun was setting, and the most we’d seen was an armadillo rooting through ant beds.

But then, off to my left, I heard branches crack under hooves. And the four-point rack emerge from the bramble. The conditions were perfect: no wind, good angle, clear shot. Still, I’d hoped to squeeze out some gas or suddenly sneeze. But before I could act on either, Dad saw the buck too. So I waited, and waited, and waited until I could tell Dad was wondering if I was ever going to act.

And then I did, lining up the shot the way I was taught. The blast ripped through my consciousness and the deer jumped, ran, and fell dead. Dad was pleased. I was nauseated, my face bleached of all color.

After Dad thanked the deer for its sacrifice, and offered up a quick prayer that it didn’t suffer, I realized how important the whole process was to him. And tolerated the last bit of the ritual: the smearing of blood across the face. Macabre, yes. But it pleased him about as much as announcing, weeks later, that we were eating the deer I’d harvested. And while that was the first and last deer I ever shot, I felt like I’d succeeded. Like I was part of the manly crowd.

Now, though, Dad knows where I stand on that and sports and other conditioned, hyper-masculine behaviors that I really don’t feel necessary to embody and perform, and he’s fine with it.

Always remember and respect.

But, more importantly, so am I.

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Haute, Hidden Potential: Designing Life

Like flipping through an old high school yearbook after a few fingers’ worth of scotch, scanning through an old external hard drive can dredge up more than bad hair, angsty clothes, and Ewww, that guy! memories.

For me, this latest traipse through the digitally curated past unearthed some shockingly offensive photos. Some that made me wonder if there was any humanity left in the world. And confirmed why I hadn’t had much luck in the love department.

No, they weren’t of my excessively over-plucked eyebrows (although they surely didn’t help). They were of my first apartment.

The Lair of the Undergraduate, 2006.

Now, everyone who has ever lived alone has a few photos like these. Probably even Kelly Wearstler and Jonathan Adler. (Actually, especially Kelly Wearstler and Jonathan Adler.)

Not only did my first apartment scream I can drink Smirnoff Ice now! but it appeared as though Mr. Magoo had ingested a handful of psychotropic mushrooms and tripped all night. In short, I was having an identity crisis–floundering somewhere between Slightly Goth and Very Gay, neither one of which could fully breathe amid the cluttered cat lady tschotskes, taped up art, and dumpster-pilfered furniture. Case in point: a gnawed particle board shelf that I’d painstakingly screwed together and painted in rainbow colors before realizing it’d been saturated with cat piss.

But with time, experience, and friends forcibly knocking crap out of my hands with a Leave it on the damn curb! I re-tooled my style lens, and augmented my behavior a bit. Like, say, ceasing to hoard historic doors and turning them into headboards. (Although I still sort of pride myself on doing that before it became chic.)

Making chic headboards before my time? Not likely, 2006.

Instead, they were recycled back into historic homes, and I started to get my design sense in tune.

***

A slightly different aesthetic took hold as I fledged from undergrad to graduate school. And while my style did mature somewhat, it still exhibited some kid-like elements–and not just tattered band posters hanging over my bed.

Growing up a little bit, 2007.

Growing up. But still cluttered, 2007.

And while I couldn’t quite pinpoint what was off, I did know that I loved antiques–old, rough pieces with history or mystery about them. But instead of channeling that in a controlled way, I pulled an Exorcist move, spinning around like a whirligig, vomiting old things all over the place. It was haphazard at best. But at least I was trying to define spaces, and be more selective in what pieces I did bring in from the street.

So, in lieu of a cat pee shelf, I opted for a castoff Art Deco cabinet (which we still have).

Discarded Deco. Rescued and still used, 2007.

And while I may not have used it efficiently at the start, I knew that I liked it–that there was something about its style that struck me. It seems my taste continued to mature–from Oh, it’s sort of usable! to Oh, it’s good quality and worth it!

***

After a few more moves, my design sense began to translate into more cohesive spaces with less, or more contained, clutter.

A more adult bedroom. Sort of, 2009.

More changes. Still lacking something, 2009.

No longer resigned to have things just because they happened to be cool, I wanted what I did because I saw them as functional investments–and treated them as such.

Getting a sense of my own style. But still, not quite there, 2010.

Quality over cheapness. (And really, they're not mutually exclusive.) 2010.

Along the way, I hemorrhaged bits and baubles that I’d kept just because–they’d been in my grandparents’ house; they’d had a story associated with them; they’d been with me ever since I could remember. Still, before I culled them, I snapped a photo–which takes up much less space, but still triggers the same memories. After all, life is about you figuring yourself out, not toting relatives’ crap with you.

***

It wasn’t until Andy moved in that I learned a critical design lesson: Sometimes, it’s better to let go.

Household melding became an exercise in maximizing functionality within our space without sacrificing our distinct styles, or having one overpower the other.

A more adult dining room, 2012

A little of him, a little of me. Balancing it out.

And after a design hiccup here and there, and plenty of conversations about what should stay and what should go, we created something that captured us rather than just me or Andy. Did we both let go of pieces that we’d cherished? Yes. But the result was worth it.

In many ways, we’d outgrown those particular pieces–not so much in the sense that they weren’t quality or “adult” enough, but rather they’d always been the “pretty” pieces that hadn’t really been used much. And letting them go to homes where they’d be used and cherished made the separation that much easier. And you know what? I still don’t regret letting any of them go.

***

Design can be so damn delightful. And a little draining–both on you and your wallet/purse/murse. But it can also be terribly rewarding. So much so that it makes you want to cry at the thought of having a cleverly designed oasis of your own, and of your own making. (Seriously.)

Plenty of professional designers pepper their streams of consciousness with references to fabrics and styles and color swatches to such a degree that you just want to throw your hands up, scream to a deity or two, pour yourself a cocktail, and watch reruns of Days of Our Lives on your overstuffed, tattered sofa.

But you don’t always need professional advice to take matters into your own hands–especially when it comes to figuring out your own style, and what really makes your place feel like home.

So put down that damn Bloody Mary and pay attention! Here’re a few things I’ve learned along the way.

(1) Know what you like and embrace it. Plenty of people abide by the adage I may not know much about XYZ but I know what I like. But equally as many gloss over how important it is to acknowledge exactly that, and how to focus your aesthetic lens on similar things when creating a space for yourself. It can be a particular form, color, texture, theme, or object that just screams, THIS IS WHO YOU ARE! Build on it.

(2) Have the courage to go out on a design limb. Like being haute couture, innovative design can sometimes push you out of your comfort zone. But the result can be phenomenal–whether you’re recovering a chair in paisley or refinishing a flea market steal.

Before and after of one of my first refinishing projects--a flea market steal! It's still one of my favorites.

(3) Reuse anything you can. It’s often cheaper, with an even greater payoff. Like, say, my grandfather’s wooden skis turned photo ledges. Or my childhood pencil-toolbox turned spice caddy.

Old skis turned photo ledges, 2012.

My old childhood pencil/took box turned spice caddy.

(4) Use found furniture or homegoods to fit your needs. I’m not above rummaging along the curb for cool castoffs, or even something that’s not necessarily cool, but useful for the time being. For instance, take the planter stand Andy and I picked off a curb in West Hollywood.

Temporary, but functional use of a salvaged planter stand.

Is it amazing? Not really. But it works for now as a toiletry tower in our storage devoid bathroom. So who cares if the gays who tossed it were probably watching us with pity, exclaiming, “Look at the poor gays, honey. Aren’t they sweet? Hopefully the Crate & Barrel truck won’t run them over.” Once we land our own WeHo apartment, I’ll paint this sucker silver and load it down with succulents.

(5) Practice controlled culling. It’ll do you wonders.

***

With all this said and written, you might still be asking Why should I care about design? And I totally understand. I mean, I’d always thought of Interior Design as a frilly, inconsequential profession. But then I realized how incredibly important having a well designed personal space is to framing your perspective, and informing your behavior.

Good design starts at home. And takes a lot of practice. Still, it’s all about the process. And you first have to take a leap and try. Because, really, what’s the worst that can happen? You fail? That’s not really a big deal. The most unfortunate outcome of any endeavor in life is regret–wondering if things could have been different if you’d told fear to sit on it.

Perhaps I’m mapping more onto design than I should. But really, I think growth and change are most always reflected in our homes–how we make things work as we move through various chapters. I know it sounds dumb. But as ludicrous as it seems now, one of the major hitches we had prior to moving was what we’d do with all of our stuff–how it’d make us feel to part with some of it. But the emotional catharsis of doing so was well worth it.

***

We often find ourselves in the fray, getting intimidated by all the glitz and glam surrounding us that we neglect to see the beauty we create–acknowledging what we do every single day to make our lives more balanced, light, and comfortable.

But the minute you start creating a more enjoyable life–starting with the space you call home–you begin to live, to unlock your potential.

To design an exciting, fulfilling life.

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Mother (Still) Knows Best

Jacqueline Bisset walks into the movie theater and sits next to Mom. And while it may seem like an intro for a bad joke, it’s not.

Always polite, Mom tells Jacqueline hello, and she responds pleasantly in her intoxicatingly amorous accent and holds Mom’s gaze, as if awaiting a starstruck photo request.

But Mom smiles, turns back to the screen, and dips into her popcorn. So, there we are: me, Andy, Laura, Mom, and Jacqueline Bisset. After a few moments, Jacqueline realizes she’s in the wrong seat. So she gets up, tells Mom goodbye, and moves a few rows back.

Before long, Red 2 fills the massive screen, and my gaiety hits a record high when Dame Helen Mirren totters onscreen wearing a strait jacket, declaring she’s Queen Elizabeth.

***

Afterward, Laura–TMZ aficionado–whips out her phone and confirms Jacqueline’s identity. Scrolling through Google images, she nods approvingly.

“Yup, that was her alright.”

Mom calls Dad to check in.

“And guess who sat down next to me in the theater? Jacqueline Bisset!”

“Really?! Is she still hot?”

“Yes. So, how’re the dogs?”

A report of dog shenanigans later, we’re re-tracing our path through Beverly Hills.

***

As most family visits go, this one ended too quickly. There’s this and that to see, and so many places to go.

Like a West Hollywood bar for martinis and burgers and fried Snickers, where we crowed about the early ’90’s music videos playing on massive screens flanked by disco balls and drag bingo posters. And where Mom reiterated how proud she was of her two sons. 

Martinis and '90's music videos.

Or a hike up one of our favorite trails, during which every tree and bird and plant gave Laura and Mom plenty of photographic fodder to pique their curiosity and fuel future scannings of California wildlife identification books.

The two explorers!

Or a trip to the beach, which ended with John Leguizamo puttering up to us on a Segue, then promptly about-facing and motoring off when he saw that “You’re a celebrity” look reflected in our eyes.

Beach babes!

But interspersed between our day trips and hikes and walks were moments that made it a family trip–the laughs, the hugs, the acknowledgments of inheriting unfortunate physical ailments.

And a few that reminded me how someone qualifies as a role model.

Like when we pulled up to an intersection and Mom rummaged through her bag to give the man with the sign some cash.

“Mom, as hard as it is, you can’t help everyone. That’s something I’ve had to realize in a larger city.”

“But it can make a difference to him.”

The light changed and I accelerated. And felt like a terrible human being.

***

The next day, as we approached a flea market entrance, Mom shuffled through her bag when she saw a man whose prosthetic leg had a “Please Help” cup taped to it. We stopped at the crosswalk, and I looked over and assured her that I understood.

“I already have some money.”

“So do I.”

Familial consonance once again. And after more stories and experiences and revelations and understandings, I looked at both my mother and sister with immense pride. And was constantly reminded of what Mom taught us both.

“You can only do your best. No one can expect more than that.”

Then and now.

We’re not super heroes or machines. We’re fallible, fleshy creatures. And the sooner we realize we’ll stumble and trip, the sooner we’ll realize we can dust ourselves off from any fall, any slight, any bad day. And, with hope, recognize the amazing capacity we have to show compassion to one another.

At least that’s what Mom says.

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The [S]um of All Fears

Once upon a time, I farted in an Apple Store. And since I couldn’t even afford an iPod charger’s cellophane shrink wrap, I didn’t feel entitled to break wind. The guilt became more overwhelming than the smell.

The cords, the cords!

While my friend bought her iPhone, I pulled out my slider phone to check messages. Like chum for sharks, the archaic technology attracted the attention of an Emo kid with skinny jeans and a misunderstood air about him. He sidled up to the blonde wood island where I leaned, unsheathed his Mac from a sleek, skull-embossed bag, and eyed me suspiciously. Behind thick, black, artsy frames, his eyes darted from my battered phone and settled on my face, his penetrating gaze conveying unequivocal dismay.

You sad, old, PC-using fossil. There’s no hope to be found here by you or your embarrassing Zack Morris phone. Be gone with ye!

I shifted uneasily, pulling at my faded polo shirt like a teenage mother trying to hide the bumpy mistake she’d made with the football team captain under the stadium bleachers. But at least my friend’s proximity afforded me some semblance of a protective Apple shield. With her tutorial finished, she returned–her acquisition drawing the Gollum-like kid’s attention away from me. We turned to go, with faint muttering following us.

My Precious.

***

Years before I fart in the Apple Store, I find myself at a mall kiosk (not this one), quickly being surrounded by curious cell phone associates, each of whom hymn-and-haw over the prototypical instrument I’ve produced from my bag.

“Holy crap! I’ve never seen something like this!”

Brian, the head clerk, calls to his coworkers.

“Margo. HEY, Margo! Come take a look at this!”

Margo, a slight, dark-haired, mousy woman obliges. As incredulous as Brian, she looks to me for answers.

“But, where’s the screen?”

I push two side buttons, jiggle it, and the screen springs up. Boom. They flinch. I am Prometheus.

***

Suffice it to say, throughout college, I didn’t have a strong track record keeping up with the latest technology. Much less using my desktop for anything other than schoolwork.

In fact, the most risqué thing I’d ever done online was send a winky face emoticon via AIM. And that necessary gumption hadn’t come easily, especially since it took me an absurdly long time during freshman year to understand the basics of instant messaging.

Wait, you mean to tell me that I can talk to someone online who’s three hours away in East Alabama right now? That’s…just…like…insanely cool.”

Throw in my latent confusion of “S” and “C” from third grade speech therapy, and my virtual self sometimes presented as a solicitous sex addict to AIM buddies and random computer users.

“Alright. Now, to finish the formula, enter ‘SUM’ followed by the cell numbers in parentheses.”

My undergraduate adviser stands over my shoulder, watching as I tap his prompt into the equation.

“Uh, no. SUM.”

I retype it again, seeing nothing wrong with the equation: CUM(E5:E7).

Little did he know, the closest I’d been to sex or porn was Kate Winslet in Titanic. And even then I’d found the necklace more interesting than her nakedness–noticing a similar jewel in an art book I’d just gotten as a birthday gift from one of the slack-jawed sleepover buddies gawking at The Boobs.

“Hey, look at this! The dress is different, but the necklace is like hers!”

No one noticed.

So much for birthday boy privileges!

***

Still, my technophobic anxiety eventually acquiesced to raging hormones. Porn won. And so did a computer virus.

Had I not been overly frugal and eschewed my anti-virus software renewal, I wouldn’t have had to experience The Walk of Shame to the nearest computer repair shop. Because, of course, the technician asked the standard, ridiculous question.

“So, how’d ya get this?”

Well, I was looking at pictures of puppies and kittens, and wabam! Trojan horse.

That’d never work. But my answer was no less transparent. And what my downcast eyes didn’t surrender, my browsing history undoubtedly did. So I returned two days later, paid the ridiculous sum required to rebuild my computer, and took it home.

Then revisited the site. And got another virus.

Like I’d hoped an “F” on a seventh-grade Algebra test would morph into a “B” over Thanksgiving break, I thought, the next day–after I’d panicked, cried a little, and unplugged my computer–everything would be fine: certain photos actually would be photos of roosters. But as I’d learned the day after Thanksgiving, magical thinking is just that.

Aside from revisiting the site, my biggest mistake was returning to the same repair shop. The technician sighed, motioned for me to hand over my debilitated computer, and asked the same question. I blamed it on my roommate, the one who used my computer when I wasn’t looking. Nonexistent roommates never consider the consequences of their actions.

After paying for my computer twice over, I swore off porn for years. But then, years later, I had a weak moment. And got another virus on the same computer. This time, the old battle wagon just couldn’t take the action. So I salvaged what existing files I could to my external hard drive, apologized to my old friend, unplugged it, took a hammer from my toolbox, and dispatched it in my backyard Office Space style.

It was the only way.

***

Years later and many subscriptions of anti-virus software wiser, I’m running a basic Google Images search on one of Big Brother’s computers for an actor I’d seen in a movie the weekend prior. But as I’m gaily gushing over the actor’s looks to two female friends at work, I have a momentary feeling of dread, but shrug it off. Enter: cock shot. On Big Brother’s screen.

Stunned, I immediately think back to the moment several months before when I’d suddenly lost control of this particular computer’s mouse. A dialog box had popped up, the slowly typed, DOS-style message reading, “Hello, Matthew. What are you doing? Don’t worry, just keep working. I’ll be done soon.” I’d felt like Sandra Bullock, caught in The Net. Big Brother’s net.

But perhaps if I’d embraced a bit of my AIM technophobic asceticism, neither I, nor my friends, would currently be privy to the actor’s exceptional supporting role. And my face wouldn’t be washed in the same shade it was all those years ago on my trips to the technician’s office.

The [s]um of all fears.

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Mom-Mau and Me

Faced with the situation at hand, I react the best way I know how: I punch the accelerator. Mom Mau grabs the oh shit handle.

“We can make it!” I shriek, panicking, foot-to-floor.

The driver of the oncoming truck hits his brakes, causing his passenger to lurch forward. Sweat trickles down my temple, and I imagine what’s going through their minds. Surely this kid’s just a bit confused. He’ll realize his mistake.

But I’ve set the station wagon’s course, and we’re not going back. We race forward. Emphatic obscenities sync out of the driver’s O-shaped mouth and, feet from his truck’s grill, I jerk the wheel sharply to the left, toward the parking lot.

The Sable hits the angled curb, and we catch air. Mom Mau screams.

JEEES…”

We hit the parking lot nose first.

“…SUUUS…”

The hatchback slams down.

“…CHRRRIST!”

And we skid sideways, across two spaces, just missing the mailbox before we stop.

I stare hard at the embossed horn emblem until I can focus. A Catholic medal swings back and forth from the rearview mirror, its glass beads judgmentally tinking tsck tsck tsck. Words slowly bubble to my lips.

“Now, Mom-Mau, there’s no real reason to tell Mom and Dad about this, right?”

Silence.

Right?”

“Mmhmm.”

Mom-Mau bends forward, her belt still on, and scoops her purse contents from the floor board.

After a few minutes, I feel their eyes. I glance to the restaurant’s glass façade. It’s noon: a full house. People sit mid-bite, mouths agape, staring. I try to fuzz them out.

Embarrassment aside, we’re hungry. We walk in and I order, all the while waiting for an anxiety-fueled fart to emanate from a far corner of the quieted room.

“To-go, please.”

Months later, Mom-Mau’s craving chicken fingers and asks me to take her to the same restaurant. Maybe she’s forgotten about the whole thing. Success! I love old people. She disappears for a minute to grab her purse. I feel like I have a clean slate–unsullied by my vehicular faux pas. Mom Mau shuffles back to the kitchen.

“Oh, and Matt?”

“Yes?”

“This time, let’s stay on the right side of the road.”

***

Two years after Mom-Mau died, I mention the story to Dad, assured that she’d told him. But as he gasps for breath between laughs, I realize she hadn’t said a thing, just like I’d asked.

Mom-Mau, me, and Laura. The early, pre-driving years.

“She took that one to the grave, bless her soul.”

And my atheistic self can only respond, lump in throat, with a decided “Yup.”

 ***

Rarely do I blame Mom-Mau for anything, especially after everything I put her through. But my slight obsession with dollar store merchandise is high among the few. After Pop-Pop died, Mom-Mau came to live with us in Alabama. And while the first few years were punctuated with health problems and depression from losing her lifelong counterpart, Mom-Mau and I maintained a very simple routine.

Most high-schoolers didn’t typically spend their Saturdays hanging with grandma. But Mom-Mau was different. She might’ve been sixty years my senior, but her eyes sparkled with mischief and spontaneity.

Then again, maybe “spontaneous” isn’t the best descriptor for routine dollar store runs. But every visit would seem like a new adventure. Maybe I took too much enjoyment out of seeing our cart fill with the same standbys: Kleenex, paper towels, Palmolive, softener sheets. But I think I just liked her company.

What I enjoyed most, though, was that we’d end each trip at the candy aisle–disproportionately larger than more critical foodstuffs, exactly as it should be.

“Go ahead and pick out a few bags for yourself,” Mom-Mau would say, shuffling over to examine the York peppermint patties and Reese’s, jabbing them with an arthritic finger like they were alive.

I’d inevitably grab a bag of Riesen’s and orange slices, both of which I’d become accustomed to snacking on during junk food binges with Mom-Mau. Although I never really understood the appeal of Werther’s Originals like she did, we both agreed wholeheartedly that marshmallow circus peanuts were never to be trusted nor, for that matter, consumed.

We’d unload our spoils at home and settle in for The Price is Right–me on Mom-Mau’s bed with bags of candy spread across the faded floral comforter, and Mom-Mau sitting in her pillow-cushioned rocker, three feet from the TV.

“You want some orange slices?”

I’d know full well she’d refuse the first time.

“Nah, not right now. Thanks, though.”

She’d keep her eyes on the spinning wheel, rise slightly in her chair, and groan as the participant barely missed the dollar slot.

A few minutes would pass before the rustling of my hands in the candy bags would get to be too much. With her eyes still firmly affixed to the TV, she’d cave.

“Well, yeah, I’ll have a few.”

I’d get up, walk the bag over to where she gently rocked, and wait until she peeled her eyes off the TV long enough to take out a few handfuls. And then we’d be set.

It’d been the same way with Pop-Pop in the Poconos. He’d be stretched across the threadbare, squeaky living room sofa, drifting in and out of sleep as Laura and I sat rapt in The Young and the Restless or a Lifetime movie. But the minute Mom-Mau would make us something and bring it over from the kitchen–setting it down without much to-do or expecting any thanks–and we’d begin munching, Pop-Pop’s head would pop up.

“Hey, whadda ya got there?” he’d ask, his hair askew, glasses crooked, and stomach poking slightly out from under his stretched-out V-neck tee.

“Carrots with Ranch.”

“Oh, okay,” he’d respond, lowering his head. But never more than three minutes later, he’d call, “Mary, how ’bout some of that carrots and Ranch?”

Before he’d finish asking, Mom-Mau would hand him his own plate.

As I got older, Mom-Mau’s and my shared love of food translated into ad hoc cooking lessons over bubbling pasta fagioli, stuffed cabbage, Italian salad, spaghetti and meatballs; the baked goods: chocolate-chip pecan pie, nut-rolls, Michigan rocks, fudge, butter cookies. Our culinary memories were forged through homemade dough and high fructose corn syrup–no waffling, no snobbery; we’d liked both worlds. But as delicious as those creations were, we’d always bond over our dollar store excursions.

Despite their usually absurd, crappy contents, I fervently defend dollar stores from friends who think they’re vile. Which is probably why I make most dollar store runs alone. But I actually prefer it that way.

For me, each one is a memory center of sorts. Crossing the threshold, I feel like a younger version of myself, always looking around for that stooped elderly woman puttering around, poking candy bags.

***

On a recent trip, I pick up a role of aluminum foil– “aluminium foil,” as Mom-Mau would say–toss a kitchen spoon into the basket, and proceed to the checkout counter.  But as the cashier rings me up, I hesitate. Maybe it’s because dollar store cashiers have repeatedly mistaken me for Josh Groban and have asked for autographs.

But this time, that’s not it.

“I forgot something. I’ll be right back.”

Returning a minute later, I toss it onto the counter.

“Is that it?”

“That’s all.”

She totals the order, then slides the Riesen’s into my bag.

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New Storylines

The hipster server sets Andy’s French toast and my bagel sandwich down on the smudged, marble-topped table.

The tabletop makes me think of the conversation I’d overheard between two marble craters days before we’d moved out of our Raleigh apartment.

And as Andy pours syrup over powdered sugar, I remember something else: sitting in that exact same spot months before the craters’ conversation in our quickly emptying apartment; retreating to the familiarity of a homemade mocha and syrupy carbs 3,000 miles away from my home state of seven years, from the man with whom I’d finally made a home; looking out into LA’s great vastness, and wondering where and how we’d fit into it.

Carbs help.

But now, that mental noise has been quieted. I’m not staring into my brunch like a fortune-teller into a crystal ball.

Mocha or crystal ball? A bit of both.

We eat, laugh, and digest the morning, and all the mornings leading to it.

***

Later that evening, we’re settling in for a double feature. Revolutionary Road fades onscreen and I’m thrown back to the day we made our decision to move. And the torturous day after, and the weeks of wondering, hoping, scrimping, and pushing that followed.

The kind words and cheers to keep going.

And the ecstatic moment of realizing it was all worth it. The whirlwind move, and the journey out here. And the continuous momentum required to stay centered and focused.

***

A few days before I got my job offer last week, I’d read a blog post that detailed the difficulties facing today’s younger generations–specifically the drying job well and the market’s increasingly competitive landscape. But the thing that really stuck in my craw was the overtly negative tone–the insinuation that we’re completely screwed.

To be certain, we’re not exactly operating in an economic environment where we can easily rebound from job loss without having a developed contingency plan. But instead of dwelling on the gray lining, we all have to find that sliver of silver that’ll keep us pushing toward our goals.

Since getting to CA, I’ve been writing and applying for jobs and writing more to try and land a job that I find personally fulfilling, but doesn’t consume my life–doesn’t derail what it is that I truly love to do: write. We’ve been so conditioned to focus on one thing at a time and think that there’s no time to pursue one’s passions while working a full-time job. But with my new job looming, I’m feeling increasingly motivated to juggle more balls–to keep writing, to flesh out business plans, to look to the future more as an untapped well of possibilities rather than a dried desert.

***

Paris, Je T’aime queues up, and Andy and I get completely lost amid the competing storylines. I’m quickly reminded that life can be a general mess.

Just as I think, This movie is so weird. Surely, Maggie Gyllenhaal is in it, her French-speaking self skitters across the screen to buy a jointBut then Juliet Binoche chases after her dead son’s ghost and tips a glass to Gena Rowlands. And then, there’re mimes. Two mimes. Two. And then a blind guy gets dumped. Or so we think. And we feel bad because he’s really upset. But, oh, it’s just the struggling artist, Natalie Portman, kidding around. Silly Natalie Portman. But do we ever see the two hot gays from the beginning again? Of course not. But we do get to see Elijah Wood sort of kill himself in a tragic attempt to become a vampire’s lover.

Like the movie, life is full of oddities, characters, and experiences–some good, some bad, some just plain weird. But its chaos can also be beautiful.

***

The movie ends as abruptly as its first scene. We lay on the bed, watching the credits.

“So, I’m confused. How did the mime go from sad to happy?”

Andy gets up and impersonates, moving his hands over his face, producing a frown, then a smile.

“Up is happy, down is sad.”

Then I guess we’re up.
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When All Else Fails, Blame the Victim

Has anyone else noticed lately how those committing, advocating for, or orchestrating violence against minorities are rewarded?

The past few months have been especially mind-boggling, mostly because state governments seem to be forcing their citizenry into bizarrely sadistic square dances, all the while spinning some hidden roulette wheel and waiting to see where the ball lands–and which of the dancers become the next target.

Swing your partner round and round,

Throw the minority to the ground

Just hope they don’t make a sound,

As the bullet chamber voids another round.

Eyes, ears, and hearts have been glued to Florida as so many awaited the verdict. I’d hoped that the jury would see through the scare tactics, would realize the defense was doing nothing but attempting to paint Trayvon in a less than flattering light–as if occasional profanity, hooded or loose clothing, or photos on social media warranted the brutal, excessive, disgusting act of injustice that stole his last breath.

How can people be so gullible? How can the jurors look themselves in the mirror knowing they gifted a known violent man–someone with a history of violence toward authorities and family members–with freedom?

And how can anyone celebrate the verdict?

A boy is dead. His death is what Zimmerman apologists and revelers are celebrating: not Zimmerman; not the verdict. They celebrate violence: violence against minorities; violence they now know they can get away with if they hold their guns close enough, align themselves with fat cats, and argue that they are the victims–not the dead.

Because, in their eyes, cases like Trayvon’s prove the dead elicited the violence.

They deserved it.

Just like a black man deserves to be highly surveilled.

Just like a woman deserves to carry the child of her rapist.

Just like a trans man deserves to be accosted at his job.

Bigots and fear-mongers know that the spotlight on Trayvon’s case will dim soon enough–that a white celebrity will die, or a rich white kid will go missing, and all attention will be turned away.

Which will be enough time for them to play neighborhood sentry: taunt the gay boy next door, nag the black neighbor, intimidate the Planned Parenthood employee who just moved in across the street–all the while keeping a hand behind their back, a finger on the trigger.

Hoping for a response. For resistance.

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Rekindling the Phoenix

The morning is off to a rocky start. Still drowsy, my mind is being anything but cooperative.

Give me more coffee.

I blog, browse Facebook, send off another job application, and refresh my email.

Garbage. Spam. Spam. Garbage. What the?

Now, you’re seeing things.

I stare at the subject line: “Conditional Job Offer.” Dumbfounded, I open it. Read through the content. Scream. And nearly hit my head on the apartment ceiling.

Fine. Enjoy this. But after you come down, we really need to reconsider coffee.

***

My mind brims with the possibilities. Everything that Andy and I have been talking about doing “one day” or “when we have the means” is one big step closer to becoming a reality.

Leaving our closet-sized Koreatown studio for a West Hollywood retreat. Adopting pets. Starting an online antique business. Socking-away money into savings. Traveling.

All because we’ve kept pushing the boundaries instead of settling for comfortable.

***

Right before we moved out here, I was reading a blog by someone who’d made a similar move to California. But he’d moved pre-recession, and had a lot more money saved up than we did. Still, he’d packed his car, left a job he’d loathed, and vowed to start over. It took a lot of work, but it only took him a month to get a new job and start re-building his life.

I’d rolled my eyes at the tight turnaround. Sure. I’ll be able to do that, too. Especially in my field.

But I knew then that I wasn’t going to be searching for a job in cultural resources. I wanted a change, and this was the perfect time to embrace it. So I opened myself up to other opportunities and took a long, hard look at my experiences and what I could cobble together for myself. And it’s paid off. Because I stopped looking to my degrees for all the answers–and started looking in the mirror.

The road leading to this morning’s joy-filled email wasn’t paved with rainbows. It took a lot of work, and a lot of self-confidence I didn’t have when I started. Because I had to remind myself how to dust myself off and keep plugging after repeatedly reading “We wish you well in your employment endeavors.” Both of us have had to keep pushing one another to get the payoff. Because it only takes one offer to negate multiple rejections.

So now, two months after moving here, I have a job that I’m excited about. Not just because it’s another paycheck, but because it’s something that’ll make me feel worthwhile–like I’m making a difference. Plus, I’m in a better place to realize that, while it may be great, it’s still a job. And a job isn’t life. It can improve it, but it can’t be its substitute.

So while this is just one step of many more, it’s one we’re taking together. As we begin realizing that we’re the architects of our future.

That we can build something spectacular.

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Gettin’ Grown

Right after I brush Chewbacca’s cousin out of my hair and whimper appropriately, I get out of the shower and peruse the medicine cabinet to try and remind myself what it is that I need to get at the grocery store.

Melatonin. Check.

Toothpaste. Check.

Deodorant. Check.

Fiber Well Gummies. Aha!

I grab my Post It and scribble it down. Then realize that my completed list reads like step-by-step master cleanse instructions.

Grocery list or master cleanse instructions?

Whether I like it or not, I’m getting older. I’ve come to terms with it–embraced its inevitability. And have steeled my nerves to withstand the little daily reminders that Time is the only ageless player in the game.

But gettin’ grown isn’t all bad. It’s just a learning process. And we all have to begin somewhere. And the best place to start is acceptance.

So, as I inch closer to another decade of life, here’re a few things I’ve learned to love about my almost 30-year-old self:

(1) My grocery list almost always has something fiber-related on it. (I’m skeptical of generic fiber gummies.)

(2) I may not know of a salon that specializes in happy endings. But I can recommend a damn good neurologist. (Let me just rifle around in my bag for his card.)

(3) “Colonoscopy” has become more of a segue than a conversational snickering point.

(4) I revel in seeing the frequent shopper card discounts below grocery mainstays. (Touch my savings card and die.)

(5) I’m having a hard time understanding “new fashions.” (Where’re the rest of your pants?)

(6) I quietly nod along with “Clean up your pet’s mess” yard signs. (Scoop it or else, hippies.)

(7) I compare the relative strengths of privacy fences, and pontificate about which one would be best for that future dream house of ours. (The one surrounded by the fence-lined privacy hedge. [Zombies, keep out.])

(8) The only music I want to hear is the kind with lyrics I can actually understand. (The first three times I heard the chorus to Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” I thought, “The station should really get its skipping player fixed.” [And yes, I said ‘its player.’])

(9) Friends have had to point out the sexually-insinuative tone of things I’ve said. (Like when I was inspecting a building project and yelled up to two burly handymen fixing a gutter, calling, “Hey guys. Lookin’ good up there.” Then snapping a photo.)

(10) I repeatedly remind Andy that “I can’t eat Kashi cereal because it tears up my system.” (It does.)

(11) We have more towels than a car wash. (Why? Because you always need towels.)

(12) My old clubbin’ clothes are rags. (‘Screw’ what exactly? Dust, that’s what.)

(13) My buckle-heavy, S&M-like shoes have been ousted by Toms. (So comfy. So quiet.)

Old and loud. New and quiet.(14) Pet adoption sites have replaced porno on the “Favorites” bar. (Dangly Dave is no match for a three-legged Corgi. [FYI: I never knew a Dangly Dave. (Seriously.)])

(15) I’ve asked about gluten-free menu options. (Sigh. First World problems.)

(16) I’ve gotten buzzed off of one mimosa.

(17) Chumbawamba’s lyric “I get knocked down, but I get up again” becomes an aspiration rather than an assurance after a cross-fit workout. (Why won’t my ears stop ringing?)

(18) Whenever someone mentions One Direction, I ask, “And which way is that?”

(19) After hitting a speed bump going 30 mph, I worry more about potential muffler costs than about how much it made my thighs jiggle. (Tire rotation trumps cottage cheese.)

(20) I’ve toted more cases of Silk home in the last two weeks than Corona. (Our in-house beer is a bottle of Framboise Lambic from Trader Joe’s. [It’s been in our fridge for six months. And we drove it across the country because we’re (I’m) cheap.])

More Calcium! Yes!

(21) My generic Teddy Ruxpin doll, Gabby, is now marketed as “vintage.” (My childhood now belongs to the Vintage Realm.)

***

Age aside, we just have to reminisce and laugh.

Ain’t that right, Chewbacca?