Monthly Archives: May 2013

Twitter

I’ve started a new Twitter account, mostly to make it easier to disseminate my blog posts. Feel free to add me: @WhitNate

Bachmann

On Facebook, I am that guy–the one who scrutinizes memes and articles for the faintest whiff of bovine excrement. I’m the one who replies with links to Snopes.com –even if their determination is that a story is partially true. I’m the first to point out that the Borowitz Report, Daily Currant, Landover Baptist Church, and Christwire are all satire sites.

They aren’t true. They make stuff up. They’re making jokes.

I don’t point out these errors because I want to be a high-and-mighty know-it-all, out to humiliate anyone who makes the slightest mistake in judgment. It is simply that I believe in the value of truth. I’m all for a good joke, but if the joke is being spread as actual facts, then it behooves me to set the facts straight before the lie is taken by all to be the truth. And it’s nothing that I don’t expect others to do with me–if I am wrong, I want to be called out and shown what is true.

But the fact remains that the satire gets passed on as truth. Most of the time, it eventually gets called out and everyone can get back on board with truth. But there is always the risk that a lie can perpetuate, and the consequences are too dire to allow that to happen.

There’s actually a rule of thumb, almost as old as the internet itself, called Poe’s Law, that explains why we fall so easily for these satire stories. The rule, simply put, is that, unless the writer goes out of his way to show that a satirical depiction of extremist views is indeed satire, it will be impossible to distinguish the satirical work from actual accounts of extremism. And, to be sure, sometimes when someone posts something that I think must be satire, it turns out to be true.

I ran into this issue a few weeks ago. A day before Governor Mark Dayton signed same-sex legislation into law in the state of Minnesota, word spread across Facebook that Representative Michele Bachmann would move out of the state if the Minnesota state senate passed the law, which Dayton had already vowed to sign.

This made a lot of people on my friends list ecstatic. She is not their favorite person, nor they hers. She has maintained her Congressional seat for six years, not because of her skill and prowess (her faux pas and outright lies are the stuff of legend), but because she benefits from a ridiculously gerrymandered district drawn specifically to include people who are guaranteed to vote for Not-The-Democrat.

But something just felt off about the story. I spotted the error almost immediately. It was published by the Daily Currant.

And so I spent a good chunk of time debunking the source as the article cropped up over and over and over. And over. Eventually, I had to just back away from the computer and get out of the house to actually celebrate the legislature’s passage of the bill. I went across to the street to a gay bar for a bit of conviviality I was to share with a friend, but our signals crossed and she ended up elsewhere. No matter–the mood was most celebratory in the bar, strangers singing and dancing and parading a rainbow flag around the bar.

Then someone brought it up: “Michele Bachmann said she’s going to move now!” And now, offline, I was stuck having to explain yet again that this was simply not true, without the benefit of linking to the articles that were already debunking the story. It was just little ol’ me, a stranger, my word against what “everyone” had told the guy.

And when I awoke this morning, I thought I was going to have to go through this all over again. I hopped onto Facebook, and the first news I saw was that Bachmann was not going to run for re-election. Here we go again, I thought.

Except that it’s true. And now, as she likely fades from the public eye, the bizarre relationship I have had with the woman draws to a close.

Now, I’ve never met Congresswoman Bachmann. She doesn’t know me. And I don’t live in her district. I live in the district next door to hers, whose representative is Keith Ellison, perhaps the most liberal member of the House of Representatives–in other words, nearly her diametric opposite. She has made all kinds of vile statements about gays–and thus, about me.

And yet, her outrageous lies about me and my friends (never mind other lies she’s told) brought about a pivotal point in my life. Here was someone who, though never having met me, hated me. She saw me as subhuman, as not her equal. And I saw all about me people whose response to her hatred was hatred. The notion was that they would stop hating her when she stopped hating them.

And this made absolutely no sense to me. It put the responsibility for one’s own actions on another person. That’s not how responsibility works. And because this other person–Bachmann–showed no signs of letting up on her views, it created a never-ending cycle of hatred.

So I decided that I had to be the one to make the first move in relation to her. I had to treat her as my equal even if she didn’t believe I was equal. I had to love her even if she hated me.

Look at the alternative. All around the world we see cycles of hate creating endless wars, putting us always in peril of making ourselves extinct. (A previous post gets into this idea further.) And the only way we can avoid this is if each of us makes the move to disrupt the cycle.

And so I have found myself repeatedly defending someone who hates me. I’ve received no small amount of flak in doing so. But I cannot escape the idea that she and I are inherently equal, and to insist she is inferior to me accomplishes no good, even as she declares me inferior to her.

She and I are equal–just as I am equal to my other seven billion siblings.

This is truth. And I must speak the truth.

Memory

The first thing I thought of upon waking this morning was my grandma. She died at the age of 80 when I was a sophomore in high school, 23 years ago. Though my mother did what she could to have us go down and visit as much as possible, I don’t feel like I knew her very well. And visits were not particularly pleasant, as my uncle, who was an alcoholic, lived with her and dominated the visits. But I loved her very much and still miss her sometimes.

Because I didn’t have many deep talks with her about what her life was like, I’ve had to learn much of what I know of my grandmother from my mother. My mother likes to tell stories about her family, and I figure that’s where I picked it up from.

My mother tells how my grandmother grieved. She grieved much in life, mostly over the death of her tenth-born child, Hazel Marie, who succumbed to pneumonia at the age of two months. Grief was very ritualised for my grandmother. Most notably, it involved annual visits to Hazel’s grave on important dates–her birth, her death, and Memorial Day, or as it was known at the time, Decoration Day. She did the same when her husband, my grandfather, died several years before I was born, right up until her health no longer permitted her to make the journey.

My grandmother would spend the whole day crying as she had the family dress up for the pilgrimage. Several members of my mother’s family are buried in a cemetery several miles down a gravel road near the Indiana-Kentucky border, or about 15 miles from the house she lived in when I was a child. (Indeed, my grandmother rests in that cemetery now.) I’ve been down that road many times to visit my aunt Pearl and uncle Ernest. It is not an easy trip.

She would fall on Hazel’s grave and wail and mourn. This is what Memorial Day meant to her. And so, as I awoke this Memorial Day, my grandmother’s ritual was my very first thought.

It is a day about which I am horribly conflicted. Being from Indiana, I know that for most of the people I know, their primary association with Memorial Day (or, more accurately, Memorial Day Weekend) is the Indianapolis 500. (Interestingly, ever since I moved to Minnesota, I forget about the Indy 500, despite the fact that, unlike in Indiana, the race is not on tape-delay here.) The Indy 500 is a huge spectacle, with a month’s worth of time trials and qualifications, a parade, a beauty pageant, and the race itself. The hubbub is about as far removed from my grandmother’s solemn ritual as you can get.

My father died and was buried right around Memorial Day, in 1997. (At the funeral, my father’s family remarked, “He was born on Veteran’s Day, buried on Memorial Day, but wasn’t in the military. What a coincidence.”) He was 59. I had not seen him conscious for five years (his last three weeks of life, when I was beckoned to his death bed, he was comatose), and after my parents divorced when I was 9, he gradually drifted out of our lives, despite having the most generous visitation rights you could imagine. His was a painful life, and he inflicted that pain in kind on all around him. I do not visit his grave. I’ve grieved and moved on. I have told myself that the best way to honor him is to live my life better than would be expected from his influence.

So, as you can see from my family’s history, I really can’t comprehend how the exclamation “Happy Memorial Day!” came into being. I mean, I understand how people want to honor the holidays of their culture, and that they may want to offer a parting word a tad more thoughtful than, “See ya!” But it seems that there is yet not much thought put behind that phrase.

And then we wrap the solemn day in red-white-and-blue bunting. We charge the day with patriotism. Yes, I understand that, traditionally, today is a day to grieve fallen American soldiers. The day was born in the shadow of the American Civil War, which took over 600,000 lives. In sheer numbers, that would be like losing every man, woman, and child in Boston. In proportion, it would be like losing the entire state of Missouri today. And we have fought in a great many wars since.

Now, I can open up a big can of worms and argue about whether wars are ever just. My answer is far more complex than can be sufficiently explained in a quick blog post. And so, right on Memorial Day, I guess I’ll open up an even bigger can of worms and say that I have to reach a fair way back in history before I can find an armed conflict in which the United States’s involvement might have any reasonable justification, and it is also very easy to come up with many unjust rationalizations for why we have entered or started the many wars of the recent past.

I understand that the motivations to enter the military are complex (often coming from financial necessity), and that to lose one’s life in battle is a truly tragic thing that ought not to be taken lightly. But I cannot abide the continued glorification of war. We have had for some time the capacity to completely make our species extinct. We forget that. We think that capacity for destruction existed only during the Cold War, which ended before today’s college students were even born. But, not only have our nuclear weapons not disappeared, we have since invented remote-control drones and biological weapons and dozens of other ways to snuff out our whole existence.

As a human being, as for all human beings, it is my duty to preserve my species. This is the most basic law of nature. For me, this means speaking out against those things that put us at risk of extinction. Thus, I must speak out against war, as well as the attitudes that push us towards war.

And for all of those reasons, abstract and concrete, personal and universal, I can’t think of the foggiest reason why today should be “Happy”.

Triple Threat

Writing about one’s own disabilities online is always a huge risk. One of the first things hiring managers do these days is google the name of an interviewee to uncover any reason they might not make a suitable employee. And whilst it’s illegal in the United States for an employer to deny a job solely on the basis of a disability for which they can make a reasonable accommodation, it is almost impossible to prove this is why you weren’t hired. So to be able to go online and say, “I have a disability” can threaten your future livelihood.

But there are things I value more than my future employability. First, I value truth. I often say that my first obligation is to truth. I really can’t imagine living any other way. It’s why I use my real name, rather than a pen name, for this blog. If I say something, I should be able to stand by my words. I also highly value the dissemination of knowledge.

Another of my adages is, “Knowledge doesn’t care who knows it. It only cares that it be spread.” One of the amazing things about the internet is that, if you have learnt something, you can share it with the whole world and they can access it, for all intents and purposes, free of charge. The site-administration tools WordPress provides offer me a glimpse at how people find my blog and what they want to learn. This information lets me know that I am indeed saying some important things, some of which are hard to find elsewhere. (More on that later.)

Finally, I believe in freeing people from guilt and shame. So much stigma surrounds disabilities, particularly mental disabilities, that we don’t really talk about it, which perpetuates the shame. Indeed, I myself struggle to simply acknowledge my disabilities without crumbling into a heap of apologies.

It took a long time to figure out exactly what my disabilities are. It’s not an exact science. We do not (yet) have a way to instantly identify every disabilities from a blood draw or suchlike, and even if we did, a single disability can exhibit itself in radically different ways from one person to the next. At present, doctors look at symptoms and match them against a rubric. Some disabilities look very similar but are treated differently. There can be trial and error involved.

I have wrangled with a number of misdiagnoses. At one point I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, but every doctor since has thought this diagnosis is way off. Indeed, when I started to look at the associated behaviors, I couldn’t see how I got that label, other than that I had early-childhood privations and that I am not as mild-mannered as the typical Minnesotan. I have been informally diagnosed with autism by a lot of people–not by professionals, but curiously, by a lot of people who are diagnosed with autism. Again, I have too many behaviors to indicate otherwise, and what symptoms I do have that resemble autism can again be attributed to early-childhood social and material deprivation.

But the most significant misdiagnosis I had was bipolar disorder. And I understand why I got that diagnosis. The label was attached to me upon a cursory observation, when I was agitated, thinking and talking very fast, and having a lot of trouble with my sleep. And so I labored under the diagnosis for over thirteen years.

But then I started seeing a new doctor, and he couldn’t observe the manic symptoms associated with bipolar disorder at all. Indeed, when I was “agitated,” I did not exhibit classic symptoms like grandiose thinking, excessive trust in others, and financial irresponsibility. Likewise, my sleep disturbances were not in a pattern of staying up a long time and only sleeping very little–I was sleeping a long time and forcing myself to stay awake a long time in a failed attempt to reset my circadian rhythm.

In the end, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder was revealed to be three separate disorders that, when combined, looked like bipolar disorder at first glance. Major depression is the most obvious, I think especially to those who know me well. I think most people have a basic understanding of depression, though some believe that it’s something that can be “snapped out of” through sheer force of will. There is no scientific evidence that it works that way. It’s often a long, slow slog out. That’s not to say that there aren’t actions one can take to help one out of a depressive state. It’s just that it’s much more than a snap of the fingers.

I talked some about generalized anxiety disorder yesterday. I am always wound up, some times more so than others. It takes a great deal of effort to relax, and even the pressure of trying to relax can crank up the anxiety. This might be the condition that plagues me the most on a day-to-day basis, because it most affects how I interact with people. Always people pressuring me to “take it easy,” “get a sense of humor,” and “relax” so that they can feel more comfortable around me, and all the pressure just makes it that much harder.

The last of the triple threat is something I’ve talked about some here in the past. It has a few names, including hypernychthemeral disorder and non-24 sleep-wake disorder. It’s a very rare condition that mostly affects blind people (which I am not). Though the medical community is not 100% certain of the cause, it is mostly likely related to how sunlight influences the production of hormones responsible for waking up. Basically, my body tries to wake itself up one hour later in the sleep cycle than it does for other people. So, whilst I sleep a normal number of hours (though at the high end of normal–10 hours–this has not been a concern to doctors), I naturally want to wake up one hour later and go to sleep one hour later every day, putting me on a 25-hour cycle. Thus, untreated, I cycle from being a day person to a night person back to a day person over the course of three or four weeks.

It took a long time to get a stable treatment regimen together. Most medications used to treat depression can actually heighten anxiety and, in my case, cause serious heart issues. And though the treatment of hypernychthemeral disorder mostly consists of an inexpensive over-the-counter medicine, it is the only known treatment for the condition, so until I had a proper diagnosis, I could not maintain long-term stability in my sleep patterns. Fortunately, in spite of the misdiagnoses, most treatments for bipolar disorder are similar to the treatments for major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. All along, it’s been a gradual progress of zeroing in on the best treatment for me, regardless of diagnosis. This makes sense, since modern medicine, for better or worse, focuses on treating symptoms rather than diagnoses.

My progress under my current regimen has been uneven but gradually improving. I’m waking up the best I have in my entire life. Problems that used to weigh me down for weeks or months now only bring me down for hours or days. I’ve worked on adding activities in my life to improve my mood and general health.

However, I also have a number of disability support services that aid my improvement. Mostly, I have two workers I meet with weekly who assist me in compensating for and overcoming my disability issues. Their support has been instrumental in my improved health, and the goal is to keep improving to the point that I don’t need their services anymore. I am well on track for that goal. It’s just going to take some more time.

No one should have to live under the pain of stigma, and if sharing my story can help someone to live a little freer, then I know I’ve done my job.

Trigger

Sunday was Mother’s Day. On Facebook, my friends traded out their userpics with photos of their mothers, and wrote glowing tributes. Well, most of my friends did. For other friends, Mother’s Day is not a happy. Their mothers have passed on and they miss them terribly. In other instances, my friends have strained relationships with their mothers, and for still others, my friends wish that their relationships with their mothers were good enough to call them “strained.” A couple of my friends shared their pain and grief on their walls, and in at least one instance, got chastised for it, which only added to the pain.

I had an idea for a Mother’s Day post for this blog, and I probably still will write it soon, since the idea is far more encompassing than Mother’s Day. But my gut told me to not write it Sunday, if for no other reason to acknowledge and honor my friends’ grief by abstaining.

If there is any consolation that at least some of my friends can take (I won’t presume all of them since I don’t know how everyone’s mind works), it is that they can see Mother’s Day coming. There it is, the second Sunday of May every year. They can brace themselves. But even then, they can’t really know what is going to trigger them, when, or how. There are 364 other days on the calendar when they can get walloped out of nowhere with pain and despair.

I have generalized anxiety disorder. I am always tightly wound. But sometimes, the smallest thing will send me for a loop and I’ll be in even worse shape. I freeze up. I feel like I’m going to throw up, except I don’t, and sometimes I’d rather throw up because I’d at least feel better after. My heart pounds. I get a weird fluttering sensation all through my body. My mind either bounces around all over the place, or fixates on one idea and spins through it over and over. I take anxiety medications, but they’re no magic bullet. Sometimes I am able to soldier through the day, and sometimes, my absolute best efforts to overcome the anxiety leave me either huddled in bed, terrified to even move, or stuck in front of my computer, endlessly zooming through the same cycle of a half-dozen URLs.

Yesterday was “one of those days.” It began as I awoke from a nightmare. Now, I almost always have nightmares, and in fact, they are the same half-dozen or so nightmares that I’ve had for the past five or ten years. It is important to note that every single one of these nightmares is based around past regrets. Because I am so familiar with the dreams, most mornings I can just bounce out of bed and start my day. But sometimes, the pain of the past leaves me huddled in bed for hours on end, convinced that whatever I can accomplish can’t possibly make amends for my failures. That’s how I spent the first two hours of yesterday morning.

At 5:00 pm yesterday, Governor Mark Dayton signed same-sex marriage into law in the state of Minnesota. This improves the lives of so many of my friends who are in same-sex relationships, some of them for decades. They’ve had some real issues when it comes to things like hospital visitation and inheritance rights that are now no more. I am ecstatic for them.

Yet the dread with which I awoke compounded itself over the course of the day. As happy as I was for my friends, I was sad for myself. A decade after coming out, I still have very limited and mostly disastrous experience with dating. I have had a couple of tepid relationships that had no chance of developing into something long-term. My friends have gradually settled into their grown-up lives with partners and families, and I see them far less. I am very alone and, unlike an Emily Dickinson-style introvert-writer, very much do not want to be. And that makes me even more anxious.

Yesterday, I was supposed to go t0 the first-tenor sectional rehearsal. I was then supposed to go to an abbreviated chorus rehearsal, after which we were to go to St. Paul to perform for Governor Dayton and several thousand other celebrants. I was to join my brothers in song in Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus to perform “Marry Us”, “Walk Hand in Hand”, and finally, “Love Is the Law” with none other than its writer, Chan Poling.

Supposed to.

Instead, I failed. In the grips of an anxiety attack, the last thing I can think of is going out in public and face the derisive stares my erratic behavior inevitably draws. But I failed the chorus–I had a job to do, and I let my medical difficulties get in the way, when I know there are choristers who are dealing with more difficult medical issues who attended and performed. I failed to support my many friends on one of the happiest days of their lives. And I failed myself, because I will forever be haunted by the fact that I could not get myself to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I don’t feel any better today. I feel like I have the entire global population of monarch butterflies in my stomach. The only thing that is getting me going is the fact that tonight is the first night of my summer classes, and there is no way I can miss. School seems to be the one commitment I have been able to master even in the midst of my medical issues. In this, I am most fortunate. It bodes well for me if and when I attend graduate school. In one arena of life, I have wrangled this beast. I only wish I could do so in more. Perhaps I will yet.

Listen

I have issues with my appetite. It’s not apparent from my waistline, but that comes from my lack of exercise. I get hungry but don’t feel like eating. It’s difficult to manage. When I do get the urge to eat, I do whatever I can to make sure I eat something.

So I’m out running errands this morning when I need to eat. Having just checked my bank account, I know there’s only one option for me close by: Taco Bell. I know, I know–they use bits and parts and call it ground beef, but it’s cheap, and that’s often my number-one measure of the desirability of food.

So I go to the Taco Bell in Minneapolis’s downtown skyway system. I come in at the very beginning of the lunch rush. The cashier, a friendly African American woman, takes my order. I get my cup for water, since I try to avoid soda–the cashier said she wished she could have some water–and await my order. The manager, a middle-aged white man, barks out the names of the line staff. I’ve been to this Taco Bell enough to know that I only know of one other white person to work on the line. As I await my meal, the manager hands me a soda cup. He says I get a free soda because his staff is “annoying” him.

I was in shock. I’ve worked enough in the public sector to know that his behavior was thoroughly unacceptable. When I worked at Minnesota Children’s Museum, we talked about “on-stage” and “off-stage” behavior–when working in clear sight of the public, you are “on stage.” What this manager did was abysmal on-stage behavior, and pretty lousy for off-stage behavior, as well. Finally, one of the line staff–a young African American man–calls out my order number.

I am not a confrontational person. When I am put into the position to speak up, my right leg shakes, my heart pounds, and I struggle to get my voice above a whisper. But I told the manager, “I’m not taking my meal, you don’t treat your employees very well,” and rushed out before he could say a word to me and I turned into a quivering mass of passivity on the floor. He made me lose my appetite, anyway.

All of this came on the heels of my catching a story in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune (front-page in the print edition, buried in the online): Minnesota has the widest racial gap in home ownership in the United States.

This divide in housing does not surprise me at all. I’ve lived in a number of neighborhoods across the Twin Cities. Most of our neighborhoods are divided by race. I don’t have my picture posted on my blog, so you don’t necessarily know until I tell you that I’m white. (Technically, I’m white-skinned–my racial background takes more explaining than I wish to do here. But society treats me as white, and that’s what matters as far as the line of reasoning I’m developing here is concerned.) And I’ve felt far more comfortable in neighborhoods where people who look like me are a minority. I often say that I blame it all on Sesame Street, that the show taught me that living in a racially diverse community is an inherently good thing. And I think that’s part of it. But I also think that I’m not often comfortable in large groups of white people because I associate being white with having money, which I can’t relate to.

Earlier this week, a most remarkable thing happened. A man named Charles Ramsey rescued three women who had been kidnapped a decade ago. (I’m not going to link the great many reports of the incident here. If you don’t know about this, Google it.) It was simple as noticing something wasn’t right and calling the police, but it’s the sort of thing a lot of people don’t do. When there’s drama in our neighborhoods, many of us tend to look the other way, not wanting to get involved. As the product of an abusive household, I am well aware of the phenomenon. Mr. Ramsey’s quick thinking saved these women’s lives.

Rightfully, the press hailed him as a hero. Unfortunately, the attention didn’t stop there. People were quick to mock Mr. Ramsey’s working-class values and African American vernacular. Out rolled the stills from the TV interviews, with sophomoric jokes dutifully typed out in Impact font.

Not everyone was in on the joke. Some have pointed out the layers of privilege and racism that have been uncovered this week, most notably in this spectacular blog post. Mr. Ramsey’s statement that a white woman rushing into the arms of a black man can only mean trouble is an ugly truth we in America ignore. Or, rather, we whites in America ignore. Because perhaps the ugliest thing about privilege is that if you have it, you never have to think about it in order to successfully navigate life. Mr. Ramsey pointed out that America really hasn’t progressed since the days of Emmett Till, as much as we whites would like to pat ourselves on the back and convince ourselves otherwise.

Mr. Ramsey has revealed the tiniest bit of his Story in interviews, only to have it mocked by people who weren’t raised to have empathy. It is only by earnestly listening to each other that we have any hope as a species.

Listen.

Edited to add (I meant to say this originally and forgot): I think it so funny that, from what we know, Charles Ramsey could probably be the best neighbor someone could have: hardworking, amiable, watchful. And yet how many of my fellow white Minneapolites would avoid living next to him.