Archive for the ‘Quix_Tic Himself’ Category

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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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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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Caregiving and Social Media

2016.February.17
I overdid it as a caregiver. Burnout isn’t a line you cross, it’s a toxicity that builds slowly, poisoning you and eventually poisoning the unfortunate souls around you. I couldn’t even see the forest for the trees at the time, I just did what I thought I had to do and utilized the resources I found along the way.
 
But caregiving should not be a zombie apocalypse first-person-shooter. Some of the damage done may never be repaired. I can only hope to cultivate from the whole experience a deeper, eventually academic, understanding of what caregiving burnout does to people, to relationships, to families, than has heretofore been produced.
 
I’ve always had this inclination to document everything I did and broadcast my experiences; it’s a big part of why I embraced “Free” as an identity. I felt that people needed to know about the possibilities — those who have privilege and freedom should explore it and then use it to help others, and those who do not should fight for it. What is experienced should be shared, so that others can find their own path. It can come off as narcissistic, and there’s probably some validity to that, but in a weird way it’s seen as devotional from within.
I can acknowledge a path as misguided and still be grateful that it got me where I am. (I hope) I’m no longer the 15-year-old who saves every band banquet program because scholars will one day need a detailed record of my impactful life. But because I learned to self-articulate and self-archive in such a manner, I do have a digital trail of the last four years, times I can’t recall well now. It means I can go back and trace the early cracks in lost connections and perhaps even enumerate my most egregious misdeeds. It means I can correlate the ups and downs of my well-being with which apps I was using at the time (when I started to experience verbal saturation, Pinterest was a gift, yall) or the medical status of my caregivee. Every note I’ve forgotten, every boost from which I benefitted, every like on Facebook is a clue into how I got through my own little zombie apocalypse.
In other words, I have data.
And it’s not a lot of data, but maybe it will provide a framework against which I can eventually study the experiences of other caregivers (or, let’s be honest, maybe it will provide a useless contrast against the useful framework that comes from people who generally live their lives very differently from me). It’s a start.
I still have trouble articulating what I want to do. I want to conduct a census of caregivers. I want to document and map out their experiences. I want to talk about our relationships, before/during/after. I want to develop resources to help caregivers feel less isolated, support one another, and accept the ways in which we will (for a time) simply be unrelatable to most people. I want to identify the resources that exist to support us and ensure they are getting rigorous oversight and improvement. I want to map out transitions, from part-time to full-, full- to part-, family cycles of responsibility, sudden endings and not-so-sudden… I want to create some sort of timeline for our emotional states relative to something other than the health of our loved ones.
Ancillary to this work, I want to study the Internet as an exercise in community/ies, identifying and articulating in ethnographic and anthropological ways those fleeting moments when one online space can define a life before it fades into sporadic notifications to an email address where you’ve forgotten the password… I want to continue to learn how to grow intersectional awareness and especially to get more white people to stop listening to me and go listen to a person of color. I’d even like to apply a philosophical examination of voting-as-harm-reduction and whether it necessitates voting pragmatically over idealistically every time (but that’s more of a hobby).
As always, I want to learn to communicate, to educate, and to learn better.
At this point, all I bring to the table is a rusty resumé, some stress-induced acute cognitive decline (hopefully acute), a 14-year-old degree in English, financial security for one year (maybe two), the braggadocio to attempt grad school full-time without really knowing how I’m going to pay for it, and a whole lot of curiosity.
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Hello, Emotional Labor, Nice to Meet a Familiar Face

2016.February.4

If I had readers, they might have noticed that last night I got really into a series of links educating me on the concept of “emotional labor” and ways it typifies the nuances of feminism. In the briefest terms I can imagine, “emotional labor” refers to any kind of effort given to take care of another person’s emotional well-being. Its significance to feminism is that the U.S. and most human societies socialize emotional labor as “feminine” and/or women’s work, therefor not “real” work and, coincidentally or not (ha!), un/under-paid. (Really, the articles I’ve been linking to do a much better job of explaining and you should go read them; I’m just trying to define my terms before I proceed.) The concept itself is not exactly new to me, but this succinct summation and eloquent framing go a long way toward filling some gaps in my ongoing healing; I am beginning to see the last several years as a single stream of emotional labor that wasn’t always conscious, contained, or consensual, and feel inclined to map and confront the whole mess if I’m to reinvigorate what’s left of my support system and be a more considerate human being moving forward.

Twitter: Emotional Labor

The Source

The more I learn about gender roles, the more I see myself fit the pattern of female socialization, especially the aptitude and availability to provide emotional labor. Conversely, long before I started to question — and eventually denounce — masculinity whole, I only felt cursorily like a man or male. I didn’t feel like anything other than male (i.e., trans), I just wasn’t enthusiastic about what my assigned gender was supposed to say about me. To the extent that I have been able (and thanks to a long list of privileges I can name in a future post, I have had more ability than most), I just kind of wade on the banks of male-ness without ever getting out of the water.

I’ve almost always lived between worlds, able to see the subtleties of both sides (and eventually, more than two sides), granting me perspective as a superpower. But it also creates a weakness — a person who can see many things is going to be especially vulnerable to that which ze does not see; my blindspots have been few, but devastating. The more I could see myself within the greater scope of humanity, the easier it became to eschew entitlement (which I define as the active embracing or promotion of privilege as earned/deserved/appropriate), but any time I could plausibly frame my privilege as equality- or merit-based, I would do so. What was missing, even in my antipathy toward masculine, was a more-than-superficial understanding of the ways other people might defer to me in a way that is so subtly consistent that I don’t even know to question it. It takes a patient, yet vocal, friend or ally to call me on my shit (emotional skilled labor?), and yet I assumed every friend was fully aware, capable, and empowered to do so.

The Flow

From November 2011-November 2015, I was a 24/7 caregiver to an elder from my life who had entered the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It felt like both an appropriate use of my skills (such as compassionate attentiveness, adaptability, generous communication) and a fitting tribute to all the ways he and his deceased wife had changed my life. I had woefully inadequate help during those years. The rest of my family, who had never bonded quite the same as I had (although there are reasons that account for certain chickens coming before certain eggs), was unwilling and/or unable to participate, and his extended family were older and strewn across the country. I leaned heavily on my Internet friends, but none of them really knew what I was going through or how to help, and most of them faded into Facebook’s arbitrary feed algorithms.

That left only my loves (and thank goodness for polyamory; if I’d only had one partner during this time, she’d have run away screaming). And let me just say that being there for a caregiver is its own special meta-caregiving Hell. It was nearly impossible for anyone (or any aggregate of someones) to give me what I needed because I was giving too much. I felt I had no choice; in turn, I gave them no choice.

So back to the flow of emotional labor: I was taking care of a sick old man who missed his wife, who developed all kinds of uncomfortable afflictions that compromised his quality of life, whose medical care was erratic due to abrupt changes in his doctor’s practice, whose family was far away and whose friends had mostly already passed, and whose mind was every day becoming more foreign and unreliable to him. I held space for him every day and let him think his thoughts and feel his feelings, setting aside my own. I held space for his siblings, who would call to check on him and write letters as they gradually lost the ability to hold any sort of dialogue with him over the phone (sometimes they’d visit; that was invariably exhausting). For a while, I tried to hold space for his old friends and associates, certain they’d miss him and call to check on him, but few did. I managed his finances and his lifestyle as he would have, including lunching out at least once a week, even as I knew he would have been embarrassed to be seen in public like that only a few years ago. I tried to maintain our shared house, willed to me since I was four but now over fifty years old, but there are no classes for pseudo-homeowners and he was in no shape to tell me all the maintenance tasks he was forgetting to do. I lived both of our lives for us.

I tried to hold space for myself, but my efforts were pretty misguided. I missed travel the most and tried to get people to come visit me (living in Texas is exhausting if you don’t get recharged by people with fresher perspectives once in a while), but visitors flaked out and the rest became high-pressure stressors/stressees due to my overwhelming expectations. I tried to maintain a link with activism, but without an active role it mostly reduced me to crying over losses and watching others celebrate the victories.

My loves held space for me. Tremulous, loving space.

Then their lives went to hell in their own right. Between the three people who stuck around until the end, there were sudden job losses, loved ones with cancer, intimate betrayal and the end of a partnership, offspring with suicidal ideations, moving to new (less than ideal) places, death of a parent, and the usual heartbreaks of politics and friendship and living in Texas. I tried to be there for them. All of them. Often at the same time. While still caregiving 24/7. And dealing with my own heartbreaks and emerging medical issues. I’d like to say we were able to hold space for one another, but that feels too clean, too simple. They held space for me, as best they could. I told them they had to let me hold space for them. I told them they should find ways to hold space for one another. I called it “survival mode”. They called me out for talking down to them with “dad voice”. I asked, “What’s that?”

Because I’d never had anyone who talked to me with that voice. I just thought I was stating the obvious.

Let me tell you, survival mode will see even the wisest and most cautious person wielding privilege like a male billionaire running for office. And if he has the superpower of perspective, he’ll see around just enough corners to have an excuse for every encroachment and never, ever see the flow of emotional labor for what it is:

CAREGIVEE>CAREGIVER>META-CAREGIVERS

And because I am attracted to caring, generous, and thoughtful people, the flow ended there. All because I failed to realize that caring, generous, thoughtful people might be that way because they were socialized feminine, and that although I behave in many of the same manners, the dynamic is rooted in women donating emotional labor to men, one of which I ultimately am, making an unchecked power dynamic — however egalitarian in mind and practice — anything but equal.

The Cleanup

Now that my caregivee is in a home and I only caregive part-time, what we have left is a downhill flood, wherein I have to find a way to siphon off the emotional radiation I’ve fed upon my loves.

And now, thanks to these posts about emotional labor, I at least have some idea how it got this way.

This piece had major, scissor-breaking cuts of tangential information and probably didn’t come to a very satisfying conclusion; I’m going to go ahead and post it in accordance with my tenet of Imperfectionism (that saying it at all is more urgent than saying it in the best way). There may or may not be a follow-up or extended version at a later date.

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What I Need to Tell…

2015.December.14

I’ve had a bit of writer’s block the past month or so, not because there’s nothing to tell but because it’s all just a big jumble of rubber-bands — not one of those slick rubber-band balls that you pick up and strip away one swatch at a time, but a crumpled cluster of enthatched rubber of indiscriminant qualities and age.

I told myself it would be easier if I just started posting the topics; whether I followed through was kind of unimportant. I just need a reference point for future conversations, future reflections…

So here are some of the topics that deserve full posts and rigorous conversations (but probably won’t receive them):

Why did I have to go to Washington, DC, for the funeral, and why did I only stay for one impossible night?
Why did I hide myself with the former colleagues I saw there, making no mention of my successful plural relationships, my workshops supporting the same, and my interest in the same sexual and reproductive topics that we struggled to include in our work a decade ago? It’s no different from my crippling identity crisis when I lived and worked there, is it?
Why didn’t I ask them to talk about themselves more when all I wanted was to NOT spend the whole afternoon talking about myself (and doing exactly that)?
How do I feel about the fact that our deceased mentor was the only one of them to stay in regular contact over these past four years of caregiving?

Healing is incredibly hard, and it’s impossible to know how much there will be until things are stable. My self-care and relationships are probably in critical-but-stable condition.
I am exercising restraint and caution when thinking past the holidays. I need openness and flexibility then and rest and low pressure now.
I have got to find a way to break myself of the old habits that became dormant during caregiving.
I really want to get back into reading.
My brain still doesn’t feel like my own. My mood and endurance know great heights, but I still mix up words and drop things as much as I ever have.

I was the first caregiver I knew of my generation, but I am far from last. Already, friends and peers are approaching me to share their accounts of dementia in the family and identify a path forward.
If I expand my umbrella of “caregiving” beyond just dementia/memory care, I realized I know quite a few part-time and full-time caregivers under the age of 30, 40, 50. We are not as alone as we think.
The first piece of advice I’d give any new caregiver might just be “Caregiving is not a spectator sport.”

Also under the category of “not as alone as we think”, I’ve discovered a lot of people were following along my adventures online these recent years who never once spoke up in support or comfort. My loved ones had already helped me understand before my peers themselves did that said peers simply didn’t know what to make of me and my circumstance, but I’m almost as resentful of their reemergence en masse now that I’m “normal” again as I am that they were ever absent. I just don’t think they realize how much of myself I forgot existed, and how many voids little notes and acknowledgments would have filled. I wish any one of them had said, “Hey, you’re going through a rough time, but I can’t hang while you’re going through this; drop me a line when your life isn’t consumed with old man smells and navel-gazing.” But this is literally all I want to ever say on the matter, because I love them all for being there now.

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All My Old Haunts…

2015.November.30

I had a poetic opening, but that part of my brain has been lost to logistics.

It was a hard weekend — not without highlights, but they were diffuse, like a bright lamp in thick, close fog. You didn’t know you were upon them until they’d already passed. You didn’t know when or whether more would follow. And between them, it was easy to lose direction.

I wouldn’t have seen the news of the passing of a dear friend and colleague if I hadn’t left a certain app on my phone some months ago, because it had been the easiest way to connect with my mom while she stayed with my caregivee. Less than two weeks ago, we placed my charge into a memory care facility; although I visit almost daily, my era as a full-time caregiver has ended.

I’d been trying to gather my thoughts on what to write, how the move was upside down — straightforward emotions and exhausting logistics — how I’d intended to start this grand phase of healing with eyes and heart wide open but so far have struggled to get even a good night’s sleep (let alone a good perspective).

But here we are. Less than two weeks into my bloody, fumbling, desperate heal, it’s time to pack a bag, board a plane, and mourn one of the best people you could meet.

I started writing his eulogy immediately, a short one (because nothing else will do for a person who has done so much) about how he’d barely known me, three years in the same office, ended ten years back, and yet this man of accomplishment and knowledge had checked on me more than any other from that time. He’d always asked about my caregivee, even before the dementia signs, as if he’d seen known our paths were destined to merge.

Last year, he talked to another good friend, who had moved to the area and was struggling to find a job. Her career trajectory was only tangential from his, and he had only my reference to go on, and yet he gave his time and focused insight freely.

I had intended to reconnect with him, and with everyone I will recognize at his funeral, some time next year. Probably a road trip. Maybe a happy hour and a networking lunch. I wanted to see them all through new eyes, and see how they see me. Most of them, it’s been ten years. I have a devastating fear that some will not get word in time, but maybe that’s a symbol of one’s impact: that it’s simply impossible to reach everyone in time before one’s funeral.

The timing is eerie. I’m not sure I could have attended a funeral one day sooner after The Big Move. And my departed friend just re-added me on Facebook a few days ago (he had a propensity to forget passwords and, inevitably, create new profiles because he loved to connect so much).

I was supposed to have a plan, an agenda, some sense of direction and questions I wanted to ask, some notion of how I was going to connect my past as an activist with my present as a caregiver and my future as a contributing member of society. What do I want to be when I grow up? I don’t know, what does your movement want people to grow up to become?

I’m going in empty-handed, though. Just a business card and an openness to follow the experience wherever it takes me. There are sure to be stories.

He would have wanted it that way.

Now here’s an adroitly relevant video from St. Vincent:

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