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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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