Posts Tagged ‘caregiving’

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Caregiving Will Be Intersectional or It Is Not My Revolution

2017.March.16

[This is a greatly abridged version of an essay I submitted for class last week. In womanism, personal, everyday narratives hold great value, so I aspired to merge my personal and academic trajectories. This shorter version should be more accessible to my friends outside of academia, but please let me know if there are any glaring inconsistencies or questions.]

“Social change, for womanists, begins with healing.” — Layli Maparyan, The Womanist Idea

Second to shutting up and listening, the most important action I’ve found for shifting perspective as a person of privilege is to serve someone else in a holistic way. Beyond parenting or merely putting a friend up with a broken leg, the type of care I mean is on the magnitude of years; in my case, the care recipient gradually declined (as opposed to improving, or adapting to a new baseline) and both parties were irreversibly changed. My time as a caregiver, which began in 2011 and only ended last month, allowed me to see deeply into my loved one’s humanity and, simultaneously, gave me my first glimpses into the womanist perspective. The parallels were not apparent to me at first, but as I have begun to study womanism formally, they appear as relevant as two feet conveying one person. Early on, I had a mirage of “community”. For four years (about twice as long as I’d been caregiving at this point), I’d invested my time, energy, and money into a local network of people around an ideal of ethical sexual liberation; my instincts were telling me my grandfather would need me, and that I would need a community space to return to once he was gone, but I had no religion, no core friends groups, not even an alumni association or book club. I did not, then, recognize the difference between a “community” and a “network” (let alone an online one), nor even really how you could convene hundreds of people around a single word or phrase and end up with radically disparate values there. It would take another two years years to realize “my people” were not really my people at all.

Early on, I was trying to make sure that no matter what his state, there were still two lives being lived between the two of us, but a person who is losing their mind can be hard to anticipate and to reason with. Because I was always primed for an emergency, I developed physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, which I would then replenish by leaning hard on the dwindling friends who remained close (most of my peers, I have since learned, simply didn’t know what to say, so they remained silent). I prepared for worst-case scenarios, but got a very gradual, very smooth decline. Poised as I was for an emergency at any moment, I learned some hard lessons about self-care, but they only slowed my descent. I even tried to re-envision it as a spiritual practice — what better practice for mindfulness than tending the every need of someone whose worldview was shrinking? — but I lacked the discipline, training, and support to see it through. Any and all negativity that arose was redirected toward picking apart my lifetime of misspent advantages and unfixable transgressions. As his light faded, so did mine.

I discovered womanism on Twitter, but did not immediately see the connections with my experience as a caregiver. When time came to move my grandfather into a memory care facilitiy, I resolved to study and support other caregivers, but also to include and humanize the broadest range I could. Who knows better about the delicate balance between caring and obligation than those whose framework is grounded in a generational history of caring for other people’s children and chaotic affection for their own. In an introduction to her The Womanist Reader, Layli Maparyan states that women of color, particularly black women, are the most qualified to lead social change because they “have been at the bottom of every social hierarchy created by man, particularly during the four centuries of the modern era, and multiply so, based on the interaction of race, class, and gender hierarchies and systems of identity”. In her second book on womanism, The Womanist Idea, Layli Maparyan invokes spirituality not just as a corollary of womanism but as an essential component, including six detailed qualities of womanist spirituality, “eclectic, synthetic, holistic, personal, visionary, and pragmatic”. Caregiving is, for me, a spiritual exercise for these same reasons (as if my “instincts” hadn’t been enough of a clue!).

Beyond spirituality, Maparyan also cites the following as qualities of womanism: antioppressionist, vernacular, nonideological, and communitarian. Caregiving is antioppressionist because it shows us a dynamic where privilege is irrelevant. Serving in such silence must needs demonstrate to the caregiver who they REALLY are when no one is looking. Vernacular also takes on new meaning in a caregiving dynamic, as the caregiver must communicate at whatever level possible with the care recipient, be it an accent, be it a mumble, be it a gesture and a specific hallucination. The caregiver must be nonideological not only with the care recipient but also with the limited resources available. Caregiving, like womanism, is about real life, not about politics. Finally, caregiving is communitarian, because caregiving calls for absolute compassion and absolute service, to see the humanity in a person or persons who may not see it themselves. Everything caregivers practice on their care recipients and on themselves will make them more compassionate and understanding community members — if it does not break them, which reiterates the community’s investment in the individual as well. Like many womanist texts, an absolute choice of the individual or the community (and not some balance of the two) harms all parties involved.

Academia is the only realm I know where a smart-but-broken white guy can research what just happened to him in a broader social context while also developing a lens created by people historically oppressed by his predecessors. The death of my grandfather has created emotional and financial hardships, but it has also tempered my resolve to help others and has cleared the way for me to focus on my studies as never before. The rest of my story, however interesting, no longer feels important; I am simply writing from where I am.

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“An American Dream”: Eulogy for Ed Hodson

2017.February.18

I want to tell you about The American Dream: I don’t believe in it.

I don’t really think I’ve ever had the chance to believe in it, and neither have most of my peers from Generation X or the Millenials (I was born right in-between).

We younger people have seen so many great institutions crumble and cower,

that there has never really been the opportunity for most of us to buy in.

 

I have not grown up in a world where you leave a family farm to serve in the military,

you go to war but come back in one piece,

you marry your sweetheart, you spend your entire life working for one company;

you save your money, buy a car, build a home, buy a nicer car, put a little something back,

and then you retire, you get a cat, and you start wearing clothes that even you admit are “kind-y loud”.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the American Dream is real,

— I DO NOT BELIEVE IN THE AMERICAN DREAM —

but I believe in Ed Hodson.

 

And the greatest thing about Ed Hodson was how he could make you believe in yourself, too.

 

I think every person here knows that it would be impossible for me

to stand up here and talk about how great Ed was,

how generous and patient, how good-humored and impossible to anger,

it would be impossible to talk about how great Ed was without talking a lot about myself.

Our fates have been closely linked since long before I served as his caregiver for, oh,

5 years, 12 weeks, 5 days, and, let’s say one hour…

or even longer than the nine and a half years we lived together after E passed away…

You ask me to tell you what all I think Ed has accomplished?

I may as well just print my resume in your programs!

 

(That’s J-E-F-F-R-E-Y… yes, R-E-Y. Not E-R-Y.)

 

I’m going to try very hard to ignore the obvious and talk about the truths underneath.

That way, you don’t have to make sense of any of the weird things I do,

you only have to see the ways Ed has acted the same toward you.

 

I think we can all agree he was just about the nicest person we’ve ever met.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was calm and he was giving — and he was these things all the time.

Did you ever meet someone so reliable?

He worked hard, and he wasn’t afraid to learn something new.

He accumulated an impressive nest egg and then he

SPENT IT ON EVERY PERSON WHO WALKED THROUGH HIS DOOR.

He was shrewd yet he was humble.

He didn’t have a thousand talents, but whatever he had to do, he did it well.

If you proved him wrong about something, get this, he’d admit it!

He wanted your best because he wanted everyone’s best.

He might ask questions, but he didn’t talk down to you

and he genuinely seemed to have your best interest at heart.

 

(I’m told the guys at GM used to say Ed was the only person who could chew your ass out and you’d thank him for it.)

 

I never saw him raise his voice at anyone,

except during E’s last days.

Sleep-deprived and miserable, but still utterly devoted to her,

I heard them snap at each other the way some couples say hello,

but I knew it was fatigue and grief talking.

It wasn’t really Ed,

because I believe in Ed Hodson.

 

Over twenty years ago, I gave my mom some random questionnaire

(how well you know each other or something)

and it asked who your hero was.

I didn’t even have an answer, really, but Mom came back with “Ed”

and it was obvious she was right.

I scored her double on that one.

 

But ever since that day, I’ve been trying to pin down exactly what it was that has made Ed my hero.

Was it because he was so good to me?

because he was so good to everyone?

or both?

 

Or was it just that he made it all look

so

easy?

I learned one of his secret weapons over the last 5-10 years,

but it isn’t any secret at all.

Behind the scenes, there was always E.

You may have heard of “devotion” in marriage, but no one did it like Ed.

E was the decider for most of their marriage, and he followed her instructions faithfully.

And I mean, like, it didn’t matter if he gave you a twenty-dollar bill and told you

it was just between the two of you,

you can guarantee E had put it in his hand.

 

But I don’t just mean that E was the brains behind the operation.

I mean that Ed was able to be calm and generous because he was so deeply,

so comfortably, so securely

in love.

There are a thousand ways that we’ve all seen someone — maybe even ourselves —

say that everything would be perfect if only this

or if I could just that,

or if those people over there would stop doing whatever,

but deep down some part of us fears that we don’t deserve it

so we shouldn’t try quite as hard.

Or–or!

We all know someone — or have been someone —

who thinks we deserve something so much,

that we are so talented and lovable and clever,

that we may as well not even try, because that thing we want is just going to fall in our lap

so we shouldn’t try quite as hard.

 

Ed led the charmed life of never thinking too little or too much of himself and doing

EVERYTHING HE WANTED with it.

All he wanted was The American Dream: wife, home, career

— and the part they don’t tell you about the American dream —

to do it all while staying friendly

and effective.

Friendly and effective.

That’s the dream of America, isn’t it? Not just having it all, but having it all and remaining humble.

When we think the best of our country,

we want to believe that we deserve it because we are friendly and we are effective.

Well, I’ve already told you I don’t believe in the American Dream,

but I believe in Ed Hodson!

 

Do you know what Millenials call a straight-A student? The kind of kid who carries around a lot of books and studies all the time and is in a thousand clubs and never sits still?

A “try-hard”.

Like that’s a bad thing. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s the opposite of a back-handed compliment,

an open fist or something?

Well I tell you that Ed didn’t have to try hard at everything

(Ed didn’t have to try hard to love E and devote himself to her, for example),

but when he did try hard, he succeeded.

And when he succeeded, he kept on trying

and he encouraged others to do the same.

Maybe Ed was the original Try-hard.

 

Ed only ever had two regrets in his life. I say two regrets, but it was more like one regret

and one mystery.

The first regret was that he never used his G.I. Bill to get a college education.

It wasn’t a sad regret, like he was secretly building a time machine to go back and fix something,

just one of those lessons you learn the hard way and pass on so you can spare others.

Still, he gladly took every training GM ever sent him on (or the Navy before that),

he worked his way up the ladder until there was no room for him to grow

not without a college degree.

So that was his big regret, that he never got his college diploma.

The original try-hard wanted to TRY HARDER.

 

(Same, to be honest.)

(I believe in Ed Hodson.)

 

Ed’s other regret, that one great mystery out of life, was after E passed away when he’d say,

“I don’t understand why the good Lord would take away one spouse

and leave the other one behind.”

Ed Hodson, the original Try-hard, was sixty years into a relationship

— and six years into day-and-night caregiving —

and he wanted to TRY HARDER.

He didn’t think he could take her pain away, and he didn’t sit around waiting for a miracle or for someone else to do it. He just gave everything he had

because he believed in E

and he believed he was better with her.

 

Imagine living life so well

that you already knew when the best part was over.

 

If I were to write a book on how to live, it would be called “The Book of Ed.”

I have no idea what I’d say in it, but there’s probably be a chapter on loving people completely, and being open-minded about people (even people you don’t like), and there’d have to be one about how to eat all that sugar without gaining weight or becoming diabetic.

 

(I believe Ed Hodson had an excellent metabolism.)

Here’s something I said at E’s funeral.

It still fits.

 

In E’s final hour, Ed turned to us, tears in his eyes, E’s hand in his, and said, “I hope you all are lucky enough to have a 60-year love.” And I know E would agree.

For theirs was a love for sharing,

a love that cannot help but spread beyond the two people who build it,

a love that has lived and will continue to live within each of us who has been touched by it.

It has traveled with us to corners of the world where neither Ed nor E ever set foot.

It touches and soothes people whom Ed and E never met.

But we are not burying that love here, today. When generations have passed and Ed and E are ancient figures, possibly forgotten altogether, their love will still touch people, as it has for 60

[now 70]

years, through our actions and the actions of the people we meet, and those they meet, and so on.

So whatever your odds are for finding a 60-year love, remember, that you’ve already been a part of something that grand, and that it is yet a part of you. E

[and Ed] would be proud to know that this is [their] finest legacy,

to spread joy and love for having known someone so rare that you can’t help being changed forever.

 

And so here, today, 2017, I’d like to leave you with something Ed would say to me in his “Golden moments” over the last fifteen months. There were days when I left Ed and I was almost in tears, but there were days when I just felt invincible, and it was because of these words.

When he had a pretty good sense of what was going on,

and a pretty good sense what I was doing, he’d take my hand

and grip it tight,

and Ed would tell me, “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll be alright. You go live your life.”

I believe in Ed Hodson,

and Ed Hodson believed that we shouldn’t worry about him and that we

— you, me, the old, the young —

“You go live your life.”

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Extended Obituary for Ed Hodson

2017.February.14
The official online obituary was shorting and cropped some text, but you can view it and a slide show here.

This photo from February 2013 features Ed (early in his illness) and the author, his caregiver.

 

Ed Hodson quietly slipped out to reunite with his beloved wife Saturday afternoon in Arlington.

 

——————–

 

Ed Hodson was the youngest boy in a family of fourteen, raised on a family farm outside Joplin, Missouri. He was good at Math, and bad at History (he never saw the point in it), and so he and his sister Flora (AKA “Fid”) would help each other out. After he graduated from Alba High School, Ed got permission from his mother to enlist in the Navy, four months before Pearl Harbor. Through World War II, Ed repaired fighter plane engines in the South Pacific: Guam and Guadalcanal.

 

Ed met his great love, Marie Mainey, a waitress, on leave in Kansas City. When Ed finished his tour, he started training for General Motors in California, and E joined him there. They were married in Kansas City in 1946, and the two were inseparable until her death on April 7th, 2006. Those last few years of her life, Ed was her caregiver around the clock.

 

Ed and E enjoyed the nightlife in Kansas City, where they were also close to E’s family in Topeka and Ed’s family outside Joplin. E made an agreement with Ed that she’d handle their money if she didn’t have to work, and Ed gladly accepted. Ed was making an impression at General Motors; although he’d been training for airplanes, they ended up putting him to work in automobile manufacturing. A few years in, Ed’s supervisor was re-assigned to Texas and when asked to pick a team to go with him, Ed was his first choice. So in 1954, it was Ed who drove the very first car off the Arlington assembly line: a 4-door Pontiac Chieftain.

 

Ed worked his way up as a friendly and effective supervisor, who revitalized teams and resolved disputes throughout the plant. He was best known for his work in Repair and Trim, though. As the plant and the city grew, Ed encouraged family and friends to come work for GM, so many members of the Hodson family came to the area because of Ed. He retired from General Motors in 1980, as Superintendent of the Trim Department.

 

It took a while for Ed and E to adjust to living away from a big town like Kansas City, but they found friends and dancing in Fort Worth, and occasionally Dallas. It was in East Fort Worth in the late ‘70s that they met Betty Lawson, who quickly became their favorite bartender. Betty was estranged from her family (not too far from Joplin), so they all kind of “adopted” each other as family right here. When Betty became a single mom in 1980, “Ed and Marie” became “Ed and E” because Jeffrey’s first three words were “Ed”, “Mom”, and “E”. The ties of chosen family became unbreakable, and extended with the arrival of Kevin, and then later with Kevin’s kids, Chelsea, Skyler, and Ace.

 

Ed and E’s home provided a sanctuary of laughter and generosity, where these kids had more toys than they knew what to do with. Ed developed a green thumb in retirement, so there was plenty of lush outdoor space for the kids to play in. And when things got tough at home, which they sometimes do, Kevin and Jeffrey, and Chelsea and Skyler and Ace, knew they could come over to 1610 University Drive and feel secure and lots of encouragement.

 

Ed is preceded in death by his wife, Marie Teresa Hodson, and 11 sisters and brothers: Othal, Twila, Juanita, Cora, George, twins Jessie and Essie, Myrtle, John (AKA “Big”), Flora, and baby Bobby (plus two nephews who grew up alongside Ed: John (AKA “Little”) and Bobby).

Ed is survived by daughter, Betty Lawson; grandsons Jeffrey and Kevin Lawson; great-grandkids, Chelsea Wyatt and Skyler and Ace Lawson; sisters Velda Murphy of Plano and Iris Dowell of Buena Park, California; numerous nieces and nephews; and a lifetime of friends.

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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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