Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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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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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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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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How Dyadism Ruined the Best Moment at SexTalk

2013.February.12

Two weeks ago, Southwestern University hosted its annual Brown Symposium in Georgetown, Texas

— wait, let me highlight why this is interesting:

Last week, the oldest university in Texas hosted a symposium on sex, specifically how we communicate about sex.

And with a little help at home, I was able to attend. “SexTalk: A Symposium with Benefits,” was the most-attended Brown Symposium in memory, and the one most attended by Southwestern students. As easy as it would be to snark about how topics like “Discoveries of Inter-relationships in the Circumpolar North” or “The Music of Olivier Messiaen” should have been equally crowd-pleasing, I prefer to reflect on why this event was such a remarkable draw, for students and visitors alike. And that list starts with Dan Savage.

For the two of you who don’t already know (and even that’s probably inflating my readership a bit), Dan Savage is the nationally syndicated columnist behind Savage Love, a bawdy verbal romp that debuted with Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, over twenty years ago. From the beginning, the column has centered on hetero people writing in for sex and relationship advice from Dan Savage, who dispenses information and insults with a wink and a “fuck you” toward the stereotype of the sassy gay friend. Along the way, he has sprinkled in political, queer, and non-monogamous content: he coined the term “monogamish” to describe committed partnerships that include threesomes or other sanctioned dalliances and even leads Google searches with readers’ namesake for former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

Many members of the audience were already fans of the column (as well as the podcast, which one friend has described as the only podcast she could listen to due to its superior production values). You know someone has attained iconic status when it feels awkward to only say the person’s first or last name. “Dan” sounds like a person, “Savage” sounds like a witness in a newspaper article, but “Dan Savage” is an entity. If you already knew about Dan Savage coming in, there’s a good chance his Q&A with a nervous SU graduate would only have confirmed what you already believed, good or bad (and depending on how far back you’d been reading). He took the stage second, after a sexologist/Unitarian Universalist minister‘s presentation on reconciling faith and sexuality, and framed himself as a gay nobody who just happened to become a champion of healthy sex and decision-making for all people. Savage Love, as he describes it, is written in the tone of a group of buddies who are sitting around being drunk and honest with one other (adding that his increasingly frequent appearances as commentator in mainstream news outlets are far less casual).

After the strained opener, the audience was invited to ask questions. They mostly furthered earlier topics (griping about our decidedly sex-negative governor, Rick Perry, for example). Then for the penultimate question, Eli took the mic.

(I should explain here that I know Eli… sort of… in that way that the Internet and huddled interdependence can make it difficult for sex-positive activists to NOT vaguely know one another in this state. I believe we were briefly Facebook friends due to some Austin project that never quite took off. If memory serves — and it may not — Eli identifies as genderqueer, but will accept “trans man” if a label is absolutely necessary; to be safe, I’ll tell this story using Eli’s conveniently short name instead of pronouns.)

Eli was the first questioner to be nervous, but also the first to ask anything controversial. In a rambly, somewhat accusatory tone, Eli braved the room to ask Dan Savage about certain patterns of insensitivity. The points were familiar to anyone who’s already seen sex-positive folks roll their eyes over Dan Savage: transphobia, bi-erasure, and general prejudice against queer identities that are far removed from his own (for the record, Dan Savage is a white, married cismale, quasi-monogamous, and the toppy-er partner). Dan Savage had briefly touched on this reputation already, but Eli’s question was far from moot; Eli even cited an earlier crack about a young lesbian having a Justin Bieber poster on her wall as an example of his disregard for effeminate men.

Dan Savage’s response was more rambly than I would have expected, but still calm and respectful toward Eli. He welcomed the concern and reiterated that Savage Love has the tone of a drunk group of friends at the root of its coarseness and its slang, but also its honesty. (Personally, I think Dan Savage’s detractors might be less critical if this were stated in the column’s header, but I’m sure there would be other drawbacks.) He talked a little about how much things have changed for him and the column over its life, but without many specifics. He rambled about his love of effeminate men (such as his husband), which got a lot of laughs but sounded just a little like, “My best friend is black, so I can’t be racist.”

Now, from this point forward, I must apologize for having an even fuzzier memory than usual, but two separate phenomena were taking shape. Positive debate has been on my mind a lot (and it’s no secret I’m skeptical of confrontational structures and dependent upon a minimal amount of affirmation in my activism), so I chose to focus not on the discussion between Eli and Dan Savage, but on the audience’s reaction to it.

We were in a large auditorium, with several hundred people on the floor and plenty more up on a balcony I couldn’t see over. Eli stood in a side aisle, about three-quarters back from the stage; most of the audience had to turn around to see Eli and did so politely at first. When Eli began to speak again, though, much of the crowd bristled.

Eli pressed further, a little more steady this time, saying something about hostility and dismissal toward trans issues. I felt that Eli’s concerns were better stated, but that the audience was less interested; either the crowd of Dan Savage fans felt Eli had already been rebuffed by Dan Savage’s mere awesomeness, or maybe Eli’s point was hitting too close to home. By the time Eli’s two or three sentences were complete, only a handful of people were still looking directly at Eli, and this is where I bristled. The vast majority of the audience had faced forward, literally turning their backs on Eli: half were looking toward Dan Savage on stage (many incredulous, as if to say “Can you believe this person? Don’t they know who you are?” and others just kind of staring blankly), and the rest looked at their feet, their notebooks, anywhere but back at Eli.

Dan Savage, too, got more articulate in his next response, especially regarding his treatment of trans issues. He assured the audience that over the more than two decades of the column, he has learned and grown with the help of critical readers. He also pointed out that he’s never relied solely on his own opinion and frequently brings in experts to check his work or even do it for him; sometimes they disagree with him, but he prints the full exchange anyway. He pointed out that he was tagging in Buck Angel and Kate Bornstein to comment on trans topics 15 years ago, long before anyone else had ever heard of them.

By this point, I think most of the audience members considered Dan Savage to have “won”, and there seemed to be more than a couple of smug smiles facing the front of the room. I detected that Eli and Eli’s allies (few in number, but easy to spot because they were still looking at Eli) were listening intently, and that some of their agitation had melted away. Unfortunately, everyone else was just waiting for the discomfort to pass like an argument over family dinner.

Dan Savage continued that, as an advice columnist, he must work with the questions he receives and that he sometimes eliminates relevant letters because they include language he knows will be too offensive. However, he emphasized, there are not always polite terms for sexual acts and identities that are bold and controversial to the mainstream. Using existing slang gives Dan Savage the freedom to talk to people where they live; as he eliminates slang from inclusion, he must sometimes also eliminate the perfectly reasonable discussions that could come from that slang. The direct consequence of this is that people who don’t know how to write about trans issues consciously enough to be included don’t get included at all, and fewer trans discussions take place than in the past.

In the end, Dan Savage and Eli agreed that Eli could write in and encourage others to do the same. Now this wasn’t a perfect answer, but it was a good answer, and Eli and Eli’s allies were both heard and attentive; maybe I’m being idealistic here, but it seemed like the exchange closed on a mutually respectful note. I felt some of Dan’s answers were a tiny bit derailing, but then I also wondered if Eli might be spoiling for a fight instead of a discussion. I felt like neither was as articulate as they could have been, but they were both being honest and human and, despite the tension in the room, respectful. Most of the audience missed this moment of subtle peace, particularly those who had already decided Dan Savage had “won” (which he hadn’t). That the conversation ended so well was, to me, a testament to their both wanting not to win, but to find a stronger path forward. Everyone who was still paying attention really seemed to come together during this final point; unfortunately, that portion comprised only a fraction of the total audience. It served as a demonstration of how much tone matters and a reminder of how few of us have the courage to sit through awkward, non-competitive conversations — even when they take us someplace better.

I love this kind of dialogue just for existing. I guess it’s fitting that in the time since the Symposium, I’ve been mulling over this piece, by a prominent advocate for marriage equality who managed to befriend Dan Cathy of hate-nugget fame. Like the discussion between Dan Savage and Eli at Southwestern, it is a bit unfocused and inkblotty, allowing readers to reinforce preconceived notions about the parties involved. But agree or disagree, I don’t see a lot of credit going to people who stand up before their allies and say, “Hey, maybe we need a new perspective.”

Now, I’m not a journalist (repeat after me: “Blogging is not journalism.”), but if I were, I would have followed up the Dan Savage/Eli story with research. I would have talked to Eli over the lunch break or in a subsequent interview to find out whether Eli was happy with the exchange. I would have reached out to Dan Savage for comment. I would have obtained a video of the discussion so I could parse out every word. Perhaps I would have looked for other examples of hero worship getting in the way of good discussion or activists whose messages and methods weren’t always in obvious accordance. But I’m just a part-time writer on a nearly quixotic search for better questions and better communication.

It invigorates me to see people discuss an issue beyond some ideological “victory”, but three quarters of the room at Southwestern had no interest in such matters. When I found not so much as a tweet about the exchange, I started wondering if  there might be some conflict avoidance inherent in red-state progressivism. Since many of us (especially allies with little-to-no queer identity) band together in little bubbles, face-to-face activism is both rare and optional. It’s primarily online or in groups. We don’t have to change anyone’s minds, just sit safely at home, secure in the knowledge that we are right.

We tell one another boogeyman stories about how unsafe we are in this state, but we are given a lot of choices and we don’t choose what is difficult or unpopular nearly as often as we’d like to think. We tell ourselves it’s braver to leave what we know and go to liberal oases (Austin, Seattle, DC…) than to stay and live openly as peace-loving, radically inclusive, judgment-defeating neighbors and citizens. How many of us would call out a stranger for saying something offensive or untrue? How many of us leverage our privilege to challenge others where they live? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making choices to avoid conflict (I’ve made them myself), I just don’t want us to fool ourselves. Engaging the issues is not the same as engaging a person, and I suspect that’s a flaw in the system that everyone is happy to ignore. I want to out that this freedom to choose is a privilege, and that quietly choosing between pre-drawn sides reinforces not only the powers that be, but the structures that cycle that powers without transformation. Change still happens, but it is slow. Can we say we know for certain that participating in a movement is easier and more effective than engaging in dialogue with those who disagree with our worldview until we’ve actually tried? Can we say for sure that there even is a movement if we don’t all take such action?

When we approach any discussion looking for an automatic winner and loser, the question I have to ask is, “Why?” My theory: conflict avoidance so pervasive that we lose the ability to see dialogues at all, that we eventually only see debates. Better to be part of an unpopular throng than standing alone somewhere in the crossfire, I guess.

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