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The Self as Unreliable Narrator of Self

2016.October.16

search: define gaslighting

“gaslight: manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” — Google

“Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.” — Wikipedia

“Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.” — Everyday Feminism

There is a struggle going on in my brain. I think about it every day, but I don’t talk about it much because it’s so deeply personal I haven’t trusted myself to filter it outward through language. There are three prevailing forces, not battling each other like it’s a war so much as bumping against each other uncomfortably, like too many people on a subway platform; need for personal space aside, it only gets scary if one gets pushed too close to the edge, but then what is only an obnoxious daily ritual to others becomes a matter of life and death for that one, who is silently measuring their own balance, agility, and friction for a way to shift back where there may no longer be room.

I don’t know if gaslighting is the appropriate term, but I do feel like my own mind is making me question my own sanity.

The forces:

  • The human brain likes to give us the illusion of a static reality. The same instincts that see fluid movement instead of choppy frames when we watch a film reel also simplify our account of other people and especially of ourselves. It’s why stereotypes and binary judgments can be hard to unlearn. And whatever our relationship with the reality that people change, the brain especially doesn’t like to accommodate the fact that “people” include oneself. In other words, this force is the stereotype I hold of myself, foundational lens to all knowledge and experience.
  • My political and cultural inquisitions have always moved me toward greater acceptance and inclusivity, but only for the last 2-3 years have I honed the will to consciously identify and contradict privilege (especially male privilege; my childhood gave me unique perspectives on whiteness that have made those confrontations far easier by comparison).
  • Despite being exactly where I want to be in life, and with the people I want to be with, my mental health remains set by terms I don’t understand/recognize from the prolonged trauma of caregiver isolation and burnout.

With these forces so easily identified, it shouldn’t be hard to see how they play out: some potential* confrontation of privilege arises, I give it my activist zeal, but it shorts out my self-perception or de-legitimizes some important social memory/context. I over-commit to addressing it (being a caregiver has heightened my previous strength of “fighting fires”, i.e., dealing with problems as emergencies, to the extent that it is hard to see any problem as anything but an emergency) but underestimate the scope or otherwise approach it with inadequate resources. While the two forces in conflict crash into one another, my caregiver brain determines whether I will calmly choose a direction, take a moment to regroup, or crumble on the floor in anxiety. And since these moments often arise in my head, whatever support I have means I face them functionally alone. By the time I realize I even need help, I am often either incapable of asking or stuck in a situation where no one is immediately available (never mind whether this hypothetical person would be well enough versed in how my brain is working to be any help).

[*Note: I have yet to identify a potential privilege that didn’t end up being real in some way, but I have often identified the wrong one for the problem at hand and gotten sidetracked from a more urgent matter, especially if I exhaust myself or other parties in doing so.]

I am coming to see how much baggage I carry with me. I never thought much about that slang as it became popular in the 90s, but I have seen (through recognizing my hoarding tendencies as I reclaim my living living space, through lukewarm reciprocity as I traveled to reconnect with faraway friends, through continual reflection over the role of my family of origin) how tightly I hold onto things material and ethereal. People. Ideas. Connections. Myths. As comical as it sounds, picture me carrying ten or twelve giant bags and suitcases, all so entangled that it is no longer possible to let go of certain ones without the whole pile crashing down upon me. I can’t look at that pile of baggage and tell you when it reached ridiculous or how to undo it; this was a lifelong accumulation, a slow tsunami of grief emerging from nowhere and everywhere.

Isolation, leadership, and masculinity have become triggers for me, but I still want to be motivated, I want to work to improve this world in idealistic fashions, and I don’t always slow down and examine the paternalism of logical, articulate, academic assumptions and statements. Making hard choices alone reminds me of caregiving. And asking for help reminds me of unchecked privilege. And not asking for help feels like perpetuating the toxic status quo. System error.

Loved ones have probably seen isolated examples of this short-circuit happening but may not realize how often or how deeply it’s happening. There’s usually a dilemma around it, so the deeper terror doesn’t get noticed. It doesn’t help that I lost some of the best allies I had in this process during caregiving because I would just emit my raw discomfort in all directions (I call it emotional radiation) and it was too psychically violent for them to remain close (they practiced self-care, and I am heartened by their having done so). I was unable to make meaningful new connections while I was caregiving at home. I kept my agenda full the first half of this year because I was trying to make room for all the people who had gone to come back (they didn’t). I am now too busy with school to make new connections elsewhere (and there I am nervous about how much of my particular crazy to share if it isn’t going to lead to a peer-reviewed article).

One of my primary assumptions for unpacking privilege is that I am fallible and don’t always understand my own reality, but if you deepen that doubt without breaks or support or reinforcement (and have you ever tried to take a break from your own brain?), the entire structure of perception itself starts to break down.  I thought my overall trajectory this semester would be simplifying my life: picking priorities and streamlining them, setting healthy boundaries, all that, but I’m starting to think I should be focusing instead on doing something about my life’s fractures.

My brain shorts out when someone close to me expresses displeasure or contradicts my understanding of reality. Buy they also call me on my mistakes, of which there are an alarming number. That’s when it feels like self-gaslighting, when I have to trust others more than I can trust myself. I say things and forget them — not from 6 months or 6 years ago, but like yesterday. So at the same time I’m trying to reprogram my brain to not default to “dadspeak” or presumptions of shared understanding, the programming itself seems to be more glitchy than I think. What if in updating an app on your phone, it suddenly forgot the program language or wrote an error into the operating system? Where do you find IT for a system you’ve built from scratch around your own experience? I have a therapist and she’s been instrumental in reprogramming my thoughts, but glitches are deeper, and I’m not sure how much she realizes I still try to do on my own…

I still don’t know how to deal with general anxiety; I assume and envy how those who’ve lived with anxiety for decades probably got an initiation, a process of learning to live around it when their lives were simpler and they had better support, and here I am waltzing in in my mid-30s like I’m capable of doing anything. Sometimes I think about that meme, “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” and wonder if I am that mediocre white man. I’ve dug a hole so deep I don’t know how to get out or even how to describe where I am, let alone what help would even look like.

It’s possible I’ve always been this needy, but my needs were sated until I spent 4 years living two lives (not terribly well), taxing every faculty; I’ve been moving in the direction of balance and self-care for almost a year now, but I still stumble often (and it takes a lot more for me to get back up than I expect). Every emotional wound goes more deeply than it should. Every moment of confusion links to another. I relish the concentration of throwing myself into a project because it’s an excuse to focus and tune everything else out, but anything short of an obsessive deadline that will prove everything I can still do is at risk of disruption and distraction. I heal faster when I have too much to do (it’s easier to stabilize a bike that’s going fast), so I do grad school and graduate assistantship and part-time caregiving and two relationships and assistant parenting and therapy and yoga (ha) and dietary changes and commuting and friendships and social justice and queering my own identity because if I don’t do it all at once I will do worse at ALL of it (and I probably won’t heal).

 

I’m not sure how much of this is still physical exhaustion or poor nutrition or compassion fatigue or navel-gazing or being distracted by a confusing break-up 2 years ago or my failure to meditate with any regularity, but I can rarely get the question out before I fall apart. When I recover from one of these short-circuits (usually with help: touch, affirmation, food), it’s usually to focus on something else: relationship stuff, scheduling, classwork, logistics of my commute to school and work. The question that tripped me in the first place remains unanswered (often unasked).

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Progression: the Role of White Friendship

2016.September.22

I’m going to share two links with a bridge of text between them. I’m not going to modify anything, but I think they’ll offer a nice point-counterpoint on a topic I’ve been trying to articulate for years now. The first link is from a blogger I don’t know (haven’t been active on Tumblr in a long while), but was shared on Facebook by a white friend, leading to my comment (which remains unanswered there). The last link is a different take on the same subject by another friend (who has a complicated ethnic background but benefits from white privilege), with whom these thoughts have been percolating for some time.

If nothing else, skip to the last link — I share their conclusions, but they said it way better than I could.

Link 1: White dudes have this thing where they believe your best friend in the world can have opposing political ideas…

This is powerful and important, and it may even explain the growing distance between myself and the very friends with whom I used to debate in just such a manner… but I have a slightly different conclusion.

People who have some privilege (especially people who are/appear white) also have more sway with those same friends precisely because of our privilege. Every time a person of color gets tired of answering an “innocent” question, or a woman gets mansplained, that is an opportunity for someone with privilege who also gets it to step up and reinforce those unheard voices. If we’re looking for our stake in the life-or-death struggles that don’t actually threaten our lives (and I’m speaking as a white guy), it is answering those stupid questions or standing up to the microaggressions in ways that others cannot/shouldn’t have to. It doesn’t have to mean speaking for someone else’s experience, but it can mean referring to relevant texts and saying what we learned from them, it can mean re-humanizing when someone is being othered, it can mean starting conversations rather than waiting until someone is raw/guarded/upset.

In short, sometimes, we need to keep those friends (albeit at arm’s length), we need to spend time with offensive family members, we need to use the access that our privilege grants to raise questions in the very spaces we wish to dismantle.

I’m not saying every person with privilege should have all hard conversations at all times — a lot of times the privilege stems in part from the fact or impression that we constitute a majority (or should), so a little should go a long way. I’m not saying we’re going to change a lot of minds right away — the culture of hostility our peers have created built up over generations with lots of skewed anecdotes, incomplete narratives, and no small amount of pseudoscience along the way.

I’m not saying which individuals should or should not bring bottled water to protests or question the diversity of their workplaces or work on taking up less space in activist spaces. We each have to find our strengths and our allies. But I am saying that when our privilege allows us to relax — and here it is important to note the difference between what offends you vs. what actually threatens your life — that’s when our work begins. If we dismiss those instances, those people, we repeat the mistake of generations of “sympathetic” people before us, who, under pressure, would eventually chose to cast out the obvious examples of racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia rather than unpacking its origins, looking it in the eye, and being the friend who says, “You’re better than this.”

Link 2: Dear “Woke White Folk”

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The Data from Hurt Is Good Data

2016.September.5
Yesterday’s physical activity just never ended… There were two yoga progressions in the morning (it’s been a while since I did more than one), then I went to the kiddo’s birthday party (#assistantparent) and ended up on every slide and bouncehouse in the joint. I fretted internally over my wonky knee or busting my glasses, but the less I held back, the less I hurt, and I carried that attitude through the rest of my day. I let myself be dragged into more tents when I was tired, and I still took pictures and change for air hockey everywhere I went.
 
Then I added an errand on the way home for my favorite tea, picked up dinner, and shortly after eating started scrubbing away at the bathroom floor. That floor has been a source of tremendous frustration since late in the move; the only way I’ve found to clean it of years-old plumbing-disaster residue is scraping by hand with a small sheet of almost-sandpaper. Coming in yesterday, after several hours work spread over three weeks, I was not quite halfway through my second scrub; I committed and knocked out everything I could reach in two hours. I pushed myself. I let myself be dragged out, just as I had at the party. It felt great, physically and emotionally.
 
I ain’t going to lie, I’m hurting today. Mostly in my hands and wrist (should be great for writing my first assignments, huh?). But I’ve been reminded of an essential truth, which is that sometimes we can do more than we think we can. We can work harder or faster, not because we underestimated last time but because we’re stronger, we’ve healed some, or because we have fresh eyes. I can’t speak for how often or accurate this experience is for anyone else, but I know it’s almost cyclical for me and this is my favorite part of the cycle.
 
These kind of moments are life-affirming for me. I like being proven wrong or misguided (I like it better when there’s communication involved, but I’m not above figuring it out myself — just very slow about it). I like the process of discovery, and of experimentation. I like learning by doing. I like the way my body can ache distinctly and tell me what I was doing 12 hours ago. I like the way my brain opens up when my body challenged or diverted (as by physical labor). I like knowing I can do more, and how.
 
And that’s my first thorough update on graduate school.
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The Taller They Are… (A Tall Tour Dispatch)

2016.May.2

[Stop me if I’ve told this story before…]

When I was in high school drama, I won the lead in the first play where I tried out. It was a one-act play for competition. Having won the role, though, my follow-through was a bit lackluster. I had a crush on my “mother”, I “joked” about being forced to get along with my exes on cast, I put no time into memorizing the script, and I left our preparatory retreat (several hours away, maybe over Spring Break?) for some other extracurricular activity — a jazz band performance I think. When I called to schedule my return, the teacher told me it would be okay and just to stay home and he’d see me Monday. I was like, sweet! Unexpected free time! When I arrived at class that Monday, though, he pulled me aside and told me he was pulling me and his assistant director would take my place. He made it clear that I had the natural talent, but that I failed to demonstrate the necessary commitment. To the extent I understood what he was saying, it was bolstered because my band director, too, had grown negative about rehearsals pulling me out of band practices. I brooded over the ampliphied message: that I liked to do too much and I was almost talented enough to get away with it. Talented, but not disciplined (a word I’d internalized from my dishonorably-discharged step-father, who in general served as a role model of everything to NOT become, except for this goddamned scary word with no real meaning behind it). I swore I’d never forget.

When I’d gotten my “QUIX_TIC” tattoo back in 2010, it was intended at the time as a friendly warning to myself and others: I like to commit fiercely to all endeavors, even those that are insurmountable or misguided. I congratulated myself for this as self-awareness, another point in favor of balance, of empowerment through self-knowledge, of tempering my earnest effort with informed caution.

So by design, I started The Tall Tour with some pretty simple stuff: a weekend in Austin here, a visit to Denton there, running around the Metroplex trying to keep up with Lillith Grey‘s latest exercises in community affirmation (seriously, she’s amazing). I negotiated which trips would be solo, and which would be accompanied (and by whom). For my first multi-day road trip since the summer of 2011, I set what I thought would be a reasonable itinerary: no more than 8 hours of driving per day, arriving the night before the con officially starts, warning friends who offered to host about medical issues that may have affected our timeline…

If caution is changing one’s approach in the face of known challenges, though, I don’t know the first thing about it. I take calculated risks all the time, but only because I calculate them to be very small risks (however others might see them). I look for ways to reduce risk (my famous “creative solutions”) but I turn down risks that cannot be calculated and/or mitigated. Because I assume my risks to be mitigated, I have trouble taking new information quite as seriously. But my math was terrible about Chicago.

It was in Kansas City, late on the morning of the second day, as we were seriously considering turning around and going home, before I confronted the fact that I had not adequately accounted for my travel partner’s health concerns (she was already experiencing pretty severe migraines and had been unable to sleep due to all the light in our host’s apartment). It was the second night, after we’d canceled on our second host and just checked into the con hotel early (exhausted and frazzled amid a steady stream of new arrivals, and hemorrhaging money all the way) that it occurred to me how arriving only one night before the con officially started (but already missing some pre-events and facing more as soon as we could open our eyes) might not have given us enough time to regroup. But it wasn’t until the third or fourth day, wandering the Tolkien-scale hotel with a minor case of hives and a major case of social anxiety that I recognized that I had never combined a road trip and a con before, and that doing so (along with the other medical and logistical challenges) may have been biting off more than I (we) could chew.

Maybe I never did learn…

We started to find our groove about the time we had to check out, and then made the return trip much more sensibly. The relationship survived and I managed not to make myself sick on humble pie, but there remained this big question of how to learn from a mistake when that mistake is in my very nature.

Clearly, it’s not a new problem. There was high school drama. There was my effort in college to join over a dozen clubs, then later to pack one semester with four intensive literature classes at a time I was lucky to get through 100 pages a week. There was my commitment to maintain a vigorous social life while working 50-60 hours a week on a disheartening political campaign in 2010 (that led to a $4000 car accident) or to remain relevant as a poly ambassador (disillusionment and heartbreak, 2013-2014) and anti-racist activist (bitter burnout and social alienation, 2014-2015) during my most intense days of caregiving. There was my attempt to serve as 24/7 caregiver itself, with almost no breaks and only the support I demanded of those whose love of my generous nature allowed me to bleed their sympathy dry.

I know it’s wrong to take on too much, to over-commit myself (and especially others, to say nothing of over-committing myself at the cost of others), but other than outright denying myself of most any opportunity (which contradicts a completely different life lesson from my quarter-life crisis) I simply don’t know any alternative.

I suppose for clues I’m looking to my personal treatment for white guilt and unchecked privilege, because I think they’re related. One reason I try to do everything is that I was one of those privileged kids who got told, “You can do anything you set your mind to if you’re clever and work hard,” without all the mixed “Not you” signals that kids with less privilege also got. To the extent I’ve known about my advantages, I usually tried to apply them to the liberation of all, but more recent discoveries are pointing me more in the direction of letting go of ambition and shutting the hell up (more on that in a future post). If I double-down on being a “leader” for “change”, I’ll just repeat the same mistakes, frustrating myself and perverting my relationships with anyone who gets dragged along on these misadventures. If I turn away from this path and start saying, “I cannot be anything I want, even if I am clever and work hard,” I’ll potentially shirk the responsibility to share my advantages rather than merely checking my privilege. (This would be a good place to remind folks that privilege has everything to do with how others see and treat you, not how you see yourself; exiting an oppressive system can be just as privileged a position as taking advantage of it, which is why I seek ways to question and subvert assumptions from within the systems that privilege me.) What I actually need to do is redefine what it means to be “clever” and make sure what I set my mind to is useful to others (especially or exclusively those without my access or advantages — and on their terms, not mine), and that my approach to “hard work” features a concerted effort at self-effacement (internal and external) to countermand society’s efforts — often unconscious — to elevate me, whatever I say or do against it. This is what I’m doing to bring my values and my station in life to closer alignment. In this context, a propensity to take on too much and get by on luck and talent hardly seems innate but rather learned, don’t you think?

Innate or not, it seems possible that correcting my “over-bite” will be a lifelong struggle, that self-awareness and trusted counsel will only go so far, and that every decade or two until I die the same lesson will creep up in profoundly predictable ways. I remain hopeful, though, that other possibilities will come to me as I continue to ponder this particular clusterfuck of selfhood and gauge its inevitability with future insights.

It’s worth noting that after I had been booted from the high school play, I considered my drama teacher a tremendous friend, even more so once I went away to college and found out how special I was not in the context of white men who had more wealth, health, stability, and learning (and perhaps discipline) than I. Had I actually applied the lesson immediately, found some way to self-instill discipline (or something less militaristic that at least resembled a work ethic), my college experience might have been far less mediocre — but then, maybe that would only internalized further all the exceptionalism I’m still working to dismantle — after all, for every performance teacher who told me I should be doing more, there were between 10-100 telling me I was going to do great things. It’s entirely possible that the disconnect helped me gain perspective, that having had to learn to work hard AFTER so many people had already complimented me for my hard work created enough cognitive dissonance to keep me from buying any more into the ambitions and sense of entitlement that so often befall my privileged peers. My drama teacher may not have done a very good job of instilling discipline, but he did a great job of instilling fallibility.

Whatever trajectory got me there, I was wide-open to criticism on the way home from Chicago; for each misstep, I could trace the disaster back to some choice I’d made and the mistaken assumptions behind it. I could, theoretically, know better in the future. I’d rather be humble late than never. Humility offers a safer, more calculated risk in the future; obstinacy merely foreshadows a harder lesson to come. Time will tell whether I have learned enough to avoid such disasters for the rest of my Tall Tour.

In the meantime, I do have a heaping pile of new lessons learned, most of which will color future travels (and the Tall Tour itself). Have a gander and let me know if any of them are helpful to you:

  • Don’t just listen to travel partners when they express concerns over health (theirs and your own); make sure they FEEL heard, that they feel you have taken their concerns seriously, and that you have multiple contingencies in mind.
  • Actually look at how big of a “bite” a big travel plan entails and ask yourself if you’ve done anything of that scale before. ESPECIALLY double-check the allotment of downtime from past endeavors.
  • Don’t update your phone’s operating system the night before a long trip. That’s a gumption trap you don’t need, and one that will come up repeatedly.
  • Pack strategically, but don’t take all day. Time and effort saved during the trip won’t matter much if you leave so late that the trip itself is compromised.
  • You’ll forget something, but you probably won’t need it as much as you think anyway.
  • But don’t forget the musicals. Voice practice just won’t be the same without two unbroken hours of belting out every part.
  • You’ll feel better once you hit the road. Once you start getting frustrated and feel thwarted at every turn from getting underway, all that matter is throwing things in the car and driving away. It’ll work out.
  • Don’t over-estimate your travel partner’s familiarity and comfort with potential hosts, especially if zie is an introvert. Try to arrive early enough that everyone has time to get better acquainted before we steal zir couch/guest room/bed for the night.
  • Check in with travel partner and self regularly about expectations and where the minimum/maximum experiences lie. Refresh your mind with alternative approaches often.
  • Don’t drive more than one day away for a multi-day con unless you have ample time and space to rest in between.
  • Don’t ever put Alfredo sauce over rice noodles, and don’t let anyone else do it, either. Just don’t.
  • Don’t make exceptions to your religious aversion to commuter tollroads. Believe it or not, there are entities out there more evil than the NTTA…
  • Speak early and often with potential hosts about ongoing medical issues, so they know when an itinerary is endangered (this one I actually managed to do and it was definitely the right call; we had to cancel on two very dear friends, three times collectively).
  • Don’t go to a con alone; ideally, know multiple people going besides your travel partner (in case one gets sick — healing thoughts, Cathy!) and maybe make some online contacts BEFORE you even arrive.
  • Remember that social media is always optional and always a crapshoot for meeting new people once you’re there. [Waves at new friends who offered hugs at times when I wasn’t checking Twitter. Next time, yall!]
  • Don’t forget those detours! (Like my trip to Austin a while back, the most important encounter on this trip was a one-hour lunch with someone I barely knew, but whose caregiver experiences so powerfully resonated with my own that for that hour we were able to share things we couldn’t process with anyone else!)
  • Remember that your heroes might be too busy for you and you might just have to take whatever face time you can get between workshops.
  • Whatever else you compromise, make sure to try the local specialty food. (Our single greatest travel triumph was finding and trying gluten-free deep dish pizza on Chicago’s north side. It was the best pizza I’ve ever had.)
  • Remember that your body, only six months out of full-time caregiving, is still very much a mystery to you (like a movie where a straightforward murder investigation leads to corruption or conspiracy or the Da Vinci Code or some other convolution…). It’s going to do weird, unfamiliar, sometimes awkward things and you’re going to have to deal with them on the fly.
  • Drink a lot of water, before, during, and after travel. Your body will hate you a little less. Pay attention to who has filtered water on tap and refill there, since unfamiliar water might “taste funny”.
  • When all else fails, find a distinctive comic book store and spend an afternoon there.
  • It’s hard to focus on pinball whose theme you don’t recognize. (This could probably be some kind of profound metaphor for specialization and familiar territory, but in this case I literally mean if you’re going to play pinball that is themed to a TV show, make sure it’s a TV show you know so you can pretend what’s going on makes sense.)
  • Beware Wichita, Kansas. There’s just a lot wrong with a town that white, that dusty, and its little courtyard that too closely resemble the set of a Six Flags gunfight…
  • (Not necessarily a travel rule, but certainly relevant to this trip for REASONS:) people (especially those socialized as women) tend to under-state the importance of things to themselves and others. Find ways to gauge what matters without asking point-blank, because direct communication just isn’t encouraged/available to everyone.
  • Don’t tell your friends and family back home how excited you were to not have to specify “unsweet” tea in Midwestern restaurants. Them’s is fighting words.
  • Travel will cost more than you think, especially if you fail to account for mistakes, surprises, and human frailties along the way. Budgets are important, but at some point they can become mere kindling to the fire of getting home in one piece. This is both something to relax and accept in the panicky moment and something that will come back to haunt you if you ignore it altogether.
  • Separate blogs about the travel from blogs about the con itself. (Because the discomforts of Catalyst Con were quite different from those for which I could take blame. Watch this space for more…)
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Our Worst Selves (or as I Like to Call Them, Our Selves)

2016.April.13

[I started drafting this before my recent travels, about which I have 1,001 things to say, so in the spirit of Imperfectionism I’m going to do quick edits and schedule to post so I can move on. The ideas here may be deeper and more complicated than my meandering draft captured, so don’t be surprised if I revisit this topic again in the future. As always, constructive criticism is highly encouraged!]

Two questions you hear a LOT on the internet that I see as strongly related:

“How could this happen?”
“How can you be friends with that person?”

I don’t believe the first needs much elaboration: we’re mostly all shocked (SHOCKED, I SAY!) at the thoughts and actions of people we don’t really notice until they burn their way onto the front page in fire and/or blood. No one ever foretells disaster and tensions flare up randomly; this space rock humanity calls home is basically one big laboratory for random events being communicated at high speeds and necessitating an ever-broader range of emoji and inflections for the word “tragedy” (except not in the classical theatrical sense, because a tragic hero must have a tragic flaw that foretells his — it’s always a he — tragic downfall).

The second statement, I fear, will seem equally random. For as long as I’ve tried to live an open life (which coincides roughly with as long as I’ve had a social media presence), people have taken issue with my broad selection of friends:

“How do you hang out with them?”
“I had to hide her on my feed, she’s just too negative.”
“That’s when I blocked him.”
“They are all just idiots; I don’t see why you bother.”
“Where’s your loyalty?”

But I’m increasingly of the opinion that they are two sides of the same awkward coin: inattention.

I don’t know why I can absorb a lot of information without it weighing me down, but I can, and I choose to do so. I’ve been saying for years that my “superpower” is perspective (thanks to a life lived along the fringes, between identities — some of my advantages helped offset otherwise confining societal expectations), so I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to approach either news or social media with my sense of openness and possibility. As is my habit, I’ve attempted to apply my personal privileges and skill sets to exploring possibilities and, hopefully, expanding them for others along the way.

But perspective is not just spotting silver linings for every dark cloud — it’s about balance. It’s also finding the dark clouds for every silver lining, and recognizing how light can play tricks on you.

For better or worse, I didn’t begin to curate my Face-friend list for length until it approached 500 (and such curation remained minimal; I didn’t excise the profoundly hard/negative until I was knee-deep in caregiver isolation and felt ill-equipped to find balance with the, what, three people I ended up de-friending?). I didn’t turn away people who were contentious, different of opinion, or generally negative, because perspective has shown me that people don’t behave in such a pattern without a reason. Although I’m sure I came off at times as a collector, someone who wanted only digital notches on my social headboard, I saw every single person I added as a friend or potential friend. I could have accumulated twice as many Face-friends if I’d wanted, but it wasn’t about the number to me, it was about the (potential for) connections, however narrow the range of commonality. My “Aquaintence” and “Restricted” lists were the mere dozen or so people whom I might hug in person but couldn’t hand off information without having a sit-down conversation about how they might receive it.

As for the rest, perhaps people thought I couldn’t see how contentious and negative “those people” were (note: “those people” were not consistently the same people; sometimes they would even talk about each other). But I saw the negativity. I could further see the pain and isolation of individuals from one another, and I would notice the way some folks insulated themselves with cynicism, skepticism, or misanthropy. I continually see the hard topics that drive wedges between us. And I don’t have to agree with someone else’s perspective to interpret and understand it; experience has shown me the humanity in people who don’t agree with me (even in people who are hateful toward me), so I endeavor to seek out the humanity always. Not because everyone can, but because I can.

And because I now habitually see the gray coexistence and subjective lighting of stormy clouds and silver linings (or is that silver clouds and stormy linings?), I look at the agitated, inflamed, overwhelming dis-ease of opinions on the Internet and I can see something of a familiar trajectory. I’ve learned to look past tone and education and shared experience, to squint and turn my head and check my eyes when I look at strong opinions, to see behind them people who have rare experiences and who are struggling to be seen and heard. And I believe the Internet is *giving everyone the opportunity* to do the same.

Okay, too silver, let me fix that…

I believe the Internet is *forcing us all* to do the same.

Awkwardly.

(But hasn’t the Internet shown us that awkward can be okay?)

The thing about Internet hate is that it isn’t Internet hate. There’s a lot of data out there that says humans so rarely change our minds about anything, it’s hard to blame anything for anyone’s opinion. The internet hasn’t transformed anyone who wouldn’t have been just as transformed if exposed to the right radio programs, scientific journals, newspapers, governmental edicts, wrapping paper, cheesecloth or parchment scrolls of yore. The challenge of our time isn’t new hate, new ideas, or new resistance to progress — it’s that old hate has found a stronger, louder voice on the Internet. This has been documented since the days of AOL chatrooms, and BBS systems before that. People just let it all out there, in part because we feel less accountable but also because we assume we’re in like-minded company. The small, self-selected spaces in which we participate online allow us to see in others much more of of ourselves than might actually be there. This is the macro level of what my favorite book on communication calls “The Usual Error”. You might tell yourself that the 200 members in your Facebook Fandom group aren’t all on the same page as you, but you are way more likely to assume you’re in the same book than with 200 random strangers driving on the highway or waiting with you at the DMV.

Online, we each express ourselves a little more boldly than we do in person (aggregated together in one place, most any viewpoint can garner attention — isn’t that the point of movement-building?). Advocates of peace and love as policy can be just as intense, just as intimidating, just as prone to cherry-pick data and memes (especially in the eyes of their opponents) as their opponents. The more significant difference is that, thanks to social media algorithms, a worldwide archive of material that can never quite be deleted, and the way sensational tweets can become ratings gold for what’s left of earlier forms of media, we now actually KNOW what is being said and thought by people who don’t agree with us. It shocks us. But only because we haven’t been paying attention.

And by “we”, I mostly mean white people, men, cis-persons, and/or those with better-than-average academic credentials. Practically everyone else grew up knowing about the deep tensions and the daily acts of unreported violence; they were a fact of life you only got through by doing what you were told, moving away, or perhaps fighting them with whatever means you had available (hint: these means did not include most governmental channels until fairly recently in American history — there’s a reason why unions and affinity groups were so important for the first half of the Twentieth Century and why they were so effectively undermined in the second half). So today’s viable ideologues are not representative of some mass hysteria, stupidity, willful ignorance, or swell of hate and misunderstanding (although sometimes the media and/or machinations will feed these aspects — sometimes deliberately, often tangentially to other goals — in their own interests). These patterns in voting are a reflection of viewpoints that have remained largely entrenched for generations in pockets that didn’t quite have the stage they now have. But just because you didn’t know this view of the world to persist while you or your parents sang “Kumbaya”, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

There never was a center, a normal, a mainstream. There was only the polite effort to minimize our differences until they absolutely necessitated response. That the myth of a mainstream “truth” lasted this long was a function of wishful thinking: that our incendiary melting pot was actually chill and balanced, that all those awful ideas that presaged the culture wars of the 60s were resolved and not surrendered to least-common-denominator banalities (like how much voting mattered and how so OVER racism we were as a country), that legislating anything from moral high ground and simple majorities (as opposed to, I don’t know, consensus and really fucking hard national conversations) wouldn’t invite generations of political resentment.

People fear what they do not understand, no matter how popular or moral it is (or seems). and the more polarized our leaders seem, the harder it gets for them to build common ground. Just as many conservatives are bewildered that not everyone arms up every time they hear the word “socialism”, so it is that liberals are bewildered that some people still like guns more than they like broad political inclusivity.

For one, maybe two generations, everyone got roughly the same inoffensive news coverage from roughly the same handful of inoffensive news outlets because it was so convenient (and the lack of an apparent agenda — which is not the same thing as a lack of agenda — was better for ratings and readership). Subtle, even unconscious biases convinced most of us that we were all equal under the law and that meant all old grudges were to be forgotten and America was, at long last, the only and best home to opportunity. With a handful of notable yet unspoken ground rules (religion and cops are generally on the right side; respectability of tone reflected respectability of argument; the majority and the customer were right unless the Supreme Court or the Board of Directors say otherwise), coverage allowed people to believe whatever we wanted, and the need to keep peace between disparate groups invited a lot of talk about unity, tolerance, and acceptance until every bigot, xenophobe, and extremist could answer accusations with, “I know you are, but what am I?” It wasn’t the absence of opposition that existed all this time; it was the absence of its mention.

Internet hate is not hate born on the internet; it is the same old hate externalized like never before. The startle here shouldn’t be what we now know they’re thinking; it’s how long we hid our heads in the sand and could believe otherwise before the Internet!

The “mainstream media” as we think of it, operating with a broad audience in mind and some attempt at objectivity in presentation, is less than a hundred years old; before World War II it was standard practice for not only editorial boards but all sections of any newspaper to coordinate around a specific political slant and to use its circulation to promote the political agenda of its publisher. To some extent, this practice only became subtler as television news emerged to carve out a middle ground and newspapers had to adapt; as news institutions fall or get bought out in waves, we may not be seeing the death of journalism so much as the end of its golden age of neutrality and a return to its polarized roots.

I would not wish harmful outcomes on any community, but they may just be the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. With every Trump victory, the good white liberals of America have to confront the fact that people of color have been right all along and we never really did lick that whole racism problem and laissez-faire capitalists (when they’re not lobbying for favorable laws and gargantuan tax breaks) have to begrudgingly consider that their economic gospel is especially bullish for loud, media-savvy blowhards. With every gruesome, unarmed death at the hands of a police officer, more civilians are forced to pay attention to how police are empowered, trained, and galvanized with fear that is too often nonspecific and/or coded to reinforce and entrench officers’ every prejudice. With every poisoned American city and collapsed bridge, activists are forced to recognize that polarized, single-issue elections fill government with ideologues who can only rehash the same battles over and over for inching social change, while miles of infrastructure and mundane policy age gracelessly until people (far more often than not, the very people our leaders swore they’d include in their big tents every four years for the last forty) die committing such innocent acts as drinking water and driving to work.

These are not shocking, spontaneous disasters; they are the fourth act of America, and they can be directly traced to incomplete victories of one and two generations ago, when short-term solutions made long-term problems look solved (if you didn’t look too long, which we’ve totally turned into an American value) so the victors wouldn’t have to look any harder, any deeper, at themselves, and no one would have to look at the losers at all. (I suspect there are parallels to Reconstruction after the Civil War, but it would take someone more familiar with that era than myself to draw clear connections.)

 

Our great American narrative has said that this land is great and we’re all great because we were born here and that’s all you need to be empowered to win, so all those losers of unfinished business and unvoiced resentment, the unequal equals who know they’ve been lied to their whole lives but not always about what and why, well they all think they’re winners, too, and they’re wondering when you’re going to start treating them as such. This is one thing the advocates of #BlackLivesMatter and Trump voters actually have in common: they have no more buy-in to American culture than they had before upper-class white folks declared racism was wrong but it was over now anyway and we should all go home and get some sleep because everyone’s got to go to work in the morning. Until such folks find authentic involvement and representation in their own lives, they’re going to keep raising a lot of fuss on the Internet.

There was a time when “community” was perceived largely around geography/proximity: your neighborhood, your town, your coworkers, the family who lived nearby… You and your community were in roughly in the same “place” at roughly the same time. The roots of this phenomenon touch on immigration, urbanization, and no small amount of housing discrimination, but it wasn’t hard to see the commonalities because you actually had a LOT in common. Areas were settled, resettled, sold, rented, blighted, gentrified in waves as people with a lot in common followed one another from one destination to the next. Before there was an internet, even the most urbane American was unlikely to encounter THAT many types of people, and it made it easier to hold beliefs and unchecked assumptions about everyone else.

The internet gave people the chance to reconnect in ideological “communities” after suburban sprawl and myths of normalcy made it hard to tell whether your next door neighbor was actually just like you or completely different, and in doing so it is pulling off the band-aid of American tolerance to show we’re still deeply scarred.

Call-out culture, when it is authentic (and not just white people looking to score brownie points by talking over others rather than engaging in an actual dialogue in a relatively safe space — although this is STILL not what activists mean when they say we need more jobs for communities of color!), is not a genesis of whining and/or entitlement; it is the culmination of generations of lived experiences not being taken seriously, of people with privilege being taught that their privilege doesn’t exist and/or could be overcome with good intentions alone (okay, maybe also a token black and/or gay friend), of well-meaning idealists declaring victory too soon after small achievements and failing to evaluate their success with the rigor of, say, a pedantic capitalist.

It’s not too late to find common ground, but we’re going to have to let go of those reflexive block buttons and actually talk with our ideological opponents once in a while. Find out what makes them tick. Share a link that didn’t come from an inflammatory Op-Ed, but includes relevant storytelling and enough research to ground that story without hitting someone over the head. Note: I’m again talking mostly to people with a lot of privilege here; self-care is revolutionary for people who already face daily oppression, and they should be judicious with their boundaries; but, for example, white people defriending other white people over racist microaggressions will only show that we want to avoid the problem of perspective, not that we want to engage or discuss our ideas or challenge ourselvses.

At our worst, Americans are lazy, and our oversights always have a way of coming back to haunt us.

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Tenets of a Tall Tour

2016.March.30

For centuries, young European men (and later, some women) would mark adulthood with a tour of the continent to see all of the art and hear all of the music and learn all of the things that were not yet digitized and available via free wifi.

Not one to take such traditions seriously (to say nothing of my limited prospects and habit of shopping clearance racks), I’ve decided to look to the Grand Tour tradition for antagonistic inspirations for my re-release upon the world. I’m calling it A Tall Tour, because I am in no way grand but I am quite tall.

Where the Grand Tour was structured and formulaic, the Tall Tour will be kind of scattershot and decidedly queer. Where the Grand Tour was one long journey, accompanied by servants and friends, I’ll be taking short jaunts wherever I can afford them, sometimes with a friend or lover along, most of the time meeting my company along the way. Where the Grand Tour was supposed to instill a sense of scope and develop lifelong connections… actually, that part sounds pretty good.

I’ve been cooped up too long. I’ve been out of commission too long. I need to reintroduce myself to the people doing the kind of work I believe in if I am ever going to find my own path amid theirs. I need to take all my navel-gazing about masculinity and privilege out into the world and learn how others have adapted, how others are demonstrating their values as much in action as in word. I need to see old friends and reconnect, see each other through fresh eyes. I need the long, quiet passion of a road trip (or several) to figure out my own patterns again. I need to take the pulse of my passions, to make sure I’m not reinventing wheels that are already in motion.

The purpose of the Tall Tour is to refresh myself and my perspective and apply those gains toward future projects and, most likely, graduate school (although I will only attend school locally, I can still learn from the syllabi and resources of programs elsewhere). I want to take my understanding of the world back into meatspace (i.e., not online, although I’m certainly still looking to learn more about how activists survive and work on the Internet). I’m especially interested in the nuts and bolts of intersectional activism, caregiving, and sexology.

And, of course, finding any excuse I can to connect these topics to one another!

So from now through late August (-ish… really depends on getting into grad school), I’m trying to take every travel opportunity that aries. When it’s feasible, I’m going to drive, incorporating multiple stops, but there will probably also be some flying (and if I get my druthers, trains as well). I will keep costs low where I can, but these travels are a centerpiece of my self-care and healing. (If you’re at all concerned how I’m going to afford this, I’m currently accepting grad school scholarships, gift cards to Southwest Airlines and hotel chains, and couch-hosting volunteers on these trips!)

What happens on those trips is very much determined by what events draw me and what people I meet there. I love activist cons, with movement workshops and self-care, and intellectually sexy spaces, with flirtation and openness and tying the intimate to the societal, and academic lectures, with lots of numbers to crunch and assumptions to check. I love little sidebars with just a handful of people. I love one-on-one exchanges over warm beverages. Anything that presents these connection opportunities and touches on my favorite topics is fair game. In spaces where I really know people and/or have been before, I might even present a workshop of my own.

And most of all, watch this space. I will hopefully have some good questions come up along the way, and I’m never as good at answering them alone as I am with friends.

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A Tall Tour, Dispatch 1

2016.March.28

Last month, I took my first solo road trip since the summer of 2011. Not everyone is a road traveler, but I am, whether a weekend on the other side of the Metroplex or a multi-week tour of a U.S. region. For as long as I’ve lived back in Texas (ten years and counting), it has provided key ideological nourishment and support I have been unable to access locally. The significance of this return to the road cannot be overstated.

But it wasn’t just a date between me and the road, and the experiences I had that weekend will help inform future choices in travel and booking. I’ll try to document what I can as I go…

  • Map ahead. This has always been my preference, as I have a good memory for and sense of direction once I’ve taken a long look. By mapping destinations (including events, people, and food), I not only have an accurate picture of my itinerary, I have more flexibility if something needs to change.
  • Schedule less, plan less*, count on flaky people. I overbook too much, I know. It’s a thing. It’s like I’m hoarding experiences, but I don’t have the stamina I used to (socially or physically). I’ve got to allow for downtime, rest when I feel like it, and include things in my agenda that are unlikely to happen (hence the flaky people), since I know I’m not really going to do those other two things very well.
    *Except for food. When last I was a road-tripper, I had not yet been diagnosed gluten-intolerant and other allergies were less severe. I was better at waiting to eat and improvising from the options available. Moving forward, I pretty much need to have a plan, a back-up plan, and a fallback option for three to four meals a day, every day, plus snacks and road food.
  • Don’t count on Facebook. The pernicious alchemy of Facebook’s algorithms mean I can never tell who will see my posts or when (nor I theirs). If there is someone I really want to see or meet, I absolutely have to contact them directly and make plans.
  • Packing takes way longer than I think. Especially when I feel compelled to create the universe (by which I mean do my accumulated laundry) at the last possible minute and pack by browsing through my house like it was a late-night supermarket aisle-wander.
  • Relax before departure and stretch often. I’m older, I’m nursing a shoulder injury, and I just don’t let go of tension like I used to. Fortunately, I just got an awesome portable self-massage set that will make sure I have no excuse.
  • My singing voice needs work. I knew it had suffered from disuse, stress, etc. in recent years, but I’ll probably have to pace myself to get back to familiar skill level. Definitely have to take an intermission rather than blow through all of Les Misèrables in one sitting.
  • Some towns will always have an event going. You don’t have to pick-and-choose which weekend to go because there’ll always be something to see and some giant traffic clusterfuck to avoid. Austin is most definitely one of those towns.
  • My story isn’t yet coherent. People want to know how I’m doing, what’s changed, what my big plans are, etc. etc. etc. But for the first few months of my newfound freedom, it has been nearly impossible to convey anything resembling a narrative around my time as a full-time caregiver. I think it’s all bottled up, or it’s just too raw and close still, but either way I need to find a succinct way to say, “I’m still unpacking it all, but I’m feeling better, he’s in good hands, and I’m ready to move forward with my life.” (Actually, that might do the trick.)
  • Perhaps one of the most surprising shifts in my mentality is just how much I love cuddling and conversation with existing friends and how un-aggressive I feel about meeting randos, flirting, hooking up, or anything else physical/sexual/romantic. (While unplanned adventures were never a big part of my travels, the fantasy of them constituted a sizable preoccupation.) For someone who, five years ago, had the agenda to “sleep my way across the western states”, my enthusiasm for sexy adventures has been supplanted by a desire for much simpler, more emotionally secure interactions. Only six months ago, sex felt like the only part of my past life that still made sense (i.e., hadn’t been drastically altered by four years of caregiving and navel-gazing), but I suppose in a way that makes it familiar and ordinary; what’s invigorating now is the prospect of quality time that involves everyday skin contact and profound discussion, particularly with people I don’t often get to see and/or in new surroundings. Moreover, I’ve found that by setting my goals at this straight-forward level, I’m much more relaxed and appreciative toward whatever connections do arise, including even the sexual.
  • Exposure is experience. I’m so out of practice attending things, networking, seeing and being seen, that just the experience of sitting still in an audience, mingling during intermissions, and finding the appropriate times for water breaks bring refreshing challenges and set my mind again to a rhythm I’d once taken for granted. If I attend something that’s a little out of my league, or conversely, telling me stuff I already know, there’s still an opportunity to soak in the space, meet the people, and contemplate how to apply what I do learn in new and invigorating ways.
  • Strike the social media balance. I wanted to hear every word that every person said in every context. I also wanted to tweet the highlights, make notes for further research, and try to win things with social media acumen. Finding the right level of engagement will take practice, but I must at least remember that if I look up from my phone and don’t recognize the topic, I’ve been distracted for too long.
  • Be generous of time and effort. The purpose of these travels is connection, not sight-seeing or checking things off a list. If I can give a little extra support to the people I visit, they’ll be able to relax and our conversations and connection points will be much better for it.
  • Don’t discount short meetings. I’m sure this will bite me in the ass soon enough, as I fall into a three-hour detour for a fifteen minute coffee spent negotiating the right milk for my chai, but for now any reasonable connection can be profound, special, and informative in as little as 15-20 minutes.
  • Hang out, if possible. My friends’ friends can be my friends, too, or at least keep the setting fresh and lively.
  • Charge phone at every chance. Beware of settings and apps that drain the battery. And for goodness sake, don’t leave a good charger behind in the hotel room!
  • Don’t go out of the way for WiFi. When I was last traveling, my laptop was indispensible, and even as the growing ubiquity of computers made hotel wifi tricky, I could usually count on a coffee shop or other hangout for quality uploads. Now, I have a non-cellular tablet, a desktop, and a cell phone; once in Austin, however, I rarely found need for more than a few minutes of Internet at at ime, and my phone was more than up for the job. I do still need to be wary of writing on cloud-based services (like Google Docs and even here on WordPress); a tablet with a keyboard but no wifi is hardly a writer’s friend.
  • Sit still, as possible. Just a few minutes looking out a window, jotting some notes on paper, or people-watching between activities brings tremendous calm and sense of place for me.
  • Be thoughtful of people back home. I try to set up the people close to me with lots of information and reasonable expectations while I am away, but I’m rusty and unfamiliar to myself, so this needs improvement. In many ways, this is new for them, too, so I need to make sure they have ample opportunity to stay in contact and/or recieve emotional support while I’m away.
  • Don’t turn on the TV the morning of checkout. That last hour of extra time goes quickly when I’m naïvely optimistic that Sunday morning HBO has anything to offer me.
  • Never reject a detour. If there’s a reasonable stop to be made on the drive, try to include it. See a friend, visit a special shop, take the scenic route.
  • Schedule some landing time. This one is always a struggle. My grad school application showed me I need between 1.5-2 times as much time to recover from a major project (and conceivably a trip) as I spent on said project. I don’t yet know whether travel has the same pattern, but I certainly need a full day with minimal responsibility after a weekend away. I’ll be watching for more information.

Itinerary

Crash Space: shared a hotel with an old friend who was also visiting, although much of our time was separate
Events: lecture by Dr. Marty Klein and hosted by the new Southwest Sexual Health Alliance; final performance by the Dramazons theater troupe
Connections: hanging out with my erstwhile roommate; micro-conversation with friends about the upcoming PolyBigFun that convinced me to go this year; finally got to meet Julie Gillis!; stopped in Bryan for lunch with a dear friend
Complications: wonky Valentine’s Day schedule of my favorite gluten-free eatery; Austin Marathon

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