Monthly Archives: June 2013

Among the Leaves

Tonight I have a wonderful professional opportunity. I will be one of twelve poets (yes, on occasion I write poetry, too) reading at Minneapolis Central Library as part of the city’s Pride Week. The readings will be from two books: Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience and When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience. [I have absolutely no clue why it’s not letting me link the full title there–must be a bug.] I have six poems in the former book and will be reading two.

Now, it is a very funny story how I ended up in this anthology. This time last year, I was in Introduction to Creative Writing, taught by G.E. Patterson at Metropolitan State University. As is typical of many such classes, the course was broken down into three units: poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. I wanted to get done with the poetry unit as soon as possible because I did not like poetry, contemporary poetry in particular. I thought contemporary poetry was sloppy, no structure, no reason to it. Lines were broken randomly, and all the classical features I had been taught in high school were tossed to the wind. Besides, I think like every high schooler, I didn’t think that damn wheelbarrow meant anything.

But Mr. Patterson opened my eyes to poetry. Seemingly random breaks were used to emphasize words and to create new meaning. A poem was not meant to tell a story, but to capture a moment. A poem must be read multiple times before you can catch all of its meaning and intention. And, of course, he had me writing poetry that fit this new paradigm.

At about the end of the poetry unit, I went to the launch party of couplets for a shrinking world, a poetry collection by my friend John Medeiros. The party was to open with a reading, and as is typical of everything in the creative world, it was getting a late start. So, being an extrovert who was there by myself, I got to talking to strangers around me. Behind me was a gentleman named Raymond Luczak, who, upon hearing that I was writing poetry, said, “Well, I thought I knew every gay poet in the Twin Cities, but I guess I didn’t. Listen, I’m publishing an anthology of poetry from queer male poets. The deadline for submission was two weeks ago. But, if you can submit to me eight poems germane to the Midwestern experience within 24 hours, and they’re good, then you’re in. I’ll publish six, but I want eight to pick from.”

I’m not one to pass up opportunities like that, so I agreed, and after the festivities, headed home and pored over my poetry–all of which at this point was school assignments. I figured out what might fit the theme, and came up only with five poems. It was getting late. I went to bed, thinking I could write poetry better after a good night’s sleep, with a fresh mind. (To this day, I prefer to write in the morning.)

The next morning, I looked through some of my prose work and found a piece that could be reworked into a poem. After I rewrote that piece, I pulled two more poems out of thin air. I e-mailed the poems to Raymond with about five hours to spare.

He contacted me straightaway, and said that he liked the work, but that one piece needed to be tightened, and that another was poorly expressed and came off unintentionally racist. (When I do something unintentionally racist, I want to be called out for it so I can contemplate how I could have done things differently, and correct course in the future. The surest corrective of white privilege is humility.) So I tightened the first piece, and wrote yet another new poem to replace the accidentally offensive work, resubmitted, and got the okay.

And that is how I got my first publishing credit. I think there are some lessons in this story:

If you’re a writer, go to literary events as much as possible. It pays to keep your big yap open. Strangers are some of the coolest people–you never know who you’re talking to. Write enough so that you have a healthy backlog of material–you never know when some finished work will come in handy. Pressure can produce creativity. You don’t have a say about how something should affect a group you don’t belong to–to believe otherwise is a cornerstone of privilege. Keep your eyes open: opportunity can pop up in the strangest places. And to have strangers read your work is one of the most awesome and humbling things in the world.

Oh, yeah, if you’re reading this and live in the Twin Cities area, consider dropping by for the reading this evening:

Gay Pride: Poetry Reading
Minneapolis Central Library
Pohlad Hall, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN, 55401
Tuesday, June 25, 7–9 p.m.

Listen to local GLBTQ authors who contributed poems on the Midwestern experience in two Squares & Rebels anthologies: “When We Become Weavers” edited by Kate Lynn Hibbard and “Among the Leaves” edited by Raymond Luczak.
This project is funded with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Presented in partnership with Queer Voices Reading Series of Intermedia Arts.

[Despite what the library website says, registration isn’t necessary.]

Write Every Day

“Write every day” is a common maxim offered to young writers. The idea is that, like a muscle, you have to keep your writing in shape in order for it to get stronger, and, like working out, it’s very easy to let the pressures of everyday life pull you out of the habit.

Not every writer agrees with this statement. One of my instructors, Alison McGhee, doesn’t believe this is a hard and fast rule. She is much more of the mind that each writer must discover what works best for himself and just go with that. If that means writing every day, go for it, but it’s not guaranteed to work for everyone. I concur that this idea makes a lot of sense.

Yet I know that I need to be diligent about writing. It is easy for me to fall out of the habit. So many things distracting me. But the strangest thing distracting me from my writing is writing.

I, of course, have this blog, which got a little bump in readership this week. As a student, I have my coursework, and I don’t have writing classes every semester–it’s all in the luck of what’s offered. I have writing samples to put together for the graduate-school applications I’m submitting this winter.

(This doesn’t even get into reading. As a writing student, I’m not only to read for school, but also “free-read”, so that I am exposed to the best writing out there. This is not easy when you read slowly.)

And I have other obligations, like anyone: my school’s arts/lit magazine (of which I’m an editor), my school’s writing club (in which I’m vice-president), Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, and making sure I have my domestic, social, and recreational needs met.

In juggling all of this, I feel guilty when any one of these things slips up–and it’s often because I’m busy meeting the obligations.

But I had a revelation over the weekend. On a certain level, writing is writing. It’s all practice–especially as a beginning writer. And it all overlaps. Many of my publication submissions come from my schoolwork. I’m considering reworking blog posts for some of my grad-school applications.

For me, to write every day is not a rule I live by–it’s become a necessary means to keep up on all I have to do.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Retreat

When I was in eighth grade, I went on my first winter retreat. I had been attending my church for less than a year, and this was only my second out-of-town trip with my church’s youth group, the first being a canoe trip the previous summer. I didn’t even know exactly what a retreat was, but it sounded like a lot of fun.

My youth group, as well as the youth groups of three or four other churches, traveled 45 minutes east to a church camp in Brown County, Indiana. The area, popularized by early-2oth-century painters who established an artists’ colony, is most famous for the “Little Smokies”, its rolling hills that turn brilliant red come autumn, attracting a million visitors a year, mostly in October. Tucked in these wooded hills was the church camp. Here, young people could get away, have fun, and learn about God.

The featured speakers of this trip were a foursome from Wichita, ranging in age from 18 to 23. They performed music (which I remember best because they insisted that we not applaud their performances, as “the praise should only go to God”), acted out goofy sketches, and most importantly, informed us of their most important mission: to assist youth in establishing Bible-study clubs in our public schools.

We learnt all the ins and outs of the Equal Access Act of 1984, under which we were permitted to start the Bible studies. There were stipulations, of course. A club had to have a faculty sponsor but could not actually participate in the meeting. We had to approach the school administration about starting the club, and the Kansans equipped us with all the documents necessary to do so. We could not publicize the Bible study with fliers, relying solely on word of mouth.

The most important matter they impressed upon us was that, if a public school allowed one club, by law, they had to allow for all clubs. If the school had a chess club, it had to allow a Bible study as well, as long as it abided by the law. Conversely, if a school allowed a Bible study, it had to allow any other club, even, as they told us, a Satanist club. (Why folks back then thought there were Satanists around every corner I have no idea, since I could see no evidence of it in my school. But t-shirts featuring heavy-metal bands like Metallica were supposedly a sign.)

My, how times have changed. The movement in recent years, in light of prominent cases of bullying and suicides, has been to start GSA’s–Gay-Straight Alliances–in public schools. These spaces are intended simply to provide moral support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual- and gender-minority students, a respite from the taunts and violence they face. But it seems good evangelicals will not allow for this because, apparently, gays are worse than Satanists, and have been putting a stop to GSA’s at every turn.

The law looks a little different now, too. In her book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Katherine Stewart details the impact of the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which now gives broader permissions to religious groups in public schools, including (as Stewart details in the book) faculty-sponsored evangelism and the ability for churches to meet in public schools rent-free (and thus paid for by tax dollars, as the churches will use electricity, water, etc. paid with tax dollars). As to that last point, I bear in mind to point out that this is not the same as, say, when church caught fire when I was a senior and we rented from my high school until we could build and move into a new building a couple of years later. These are churches meeting in schools with no plans to vacate or pay rent.

But back to my earlier point, about “the gays” supposedly being worse than Satanists. This whole toxic mentality is so far removed from the Jesus I was taught about from the Bible. Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (New International Version). I see little love from many evangelicals towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Instead, I see vitriol, bitterness, and explicit moves to undercut any attempt to be treated equally under the law. (For instance, this article describes well the state of affairs with regard to same-sex civil marriage.) And I don’t see prayers for “enemies” being the most common response to the day. The ballot box and the lobbyist have replaced prayer.

I’m not a Christian anymore, but I’d be a fool  to claim that some of the ideals I learnt as a Christian haven’t stuck with me. Unfortunately, the values I most cherish and live by–love, equality, compassion–are becoming harder and harder to find in those who bear the name of the one who taught those values. I’m fortunate to know Christians who break this mold, and to them I say, live boldly, defy your leaders when they replace the pulpit with the political party, and may you continue to live graciously and compassionately.

Advance in love. Do not retreat.

Exodus

I am in my last year of undergraduate studies in creative writing at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. I am taking an advanced writing class this summer in which my first major project is a multigenre work covering a particular subject. Choosing to write about my experiences in the ex-gay movement, I would be remiss if didn’t also chronicle the rise and fall of Exodus International within the work as well. Given the news of the past week, I am going to have to do some revision of my writing.

Exodus International, an umbrella organization dedicated to providing support for those with “unwanted same-sex attraction”, announced on Wednesday at their annual conference that they are shutting down their ministry. The news hit all the major media outlets. Though I knew something was in the works–Exodus president Alan Chambers had been intimating “big news” for some time–I didn’t expect the news to look quite like this.

The reaction of most of the people I know is simple ecstasy. Though they may not have been personally affected by Exodus or by the ex-gay movement, they are aware of Exodus’s role as the world’s oldest and largest ex-gay organization. They know that many lives will be spared, as “reparative therapy” treatments have been indicated to induce depression and even suicide. They may even personally know others who have suffered under the pseudotherapy.

However, those of us who are close to the issue are not quite so optimistic. First off, Exodus isn’t really shutting down. The name is being retired, and from a legal standpoint, it will cease to exist as a non-profit organization. However, at Wednesday’s conference, Mr. Chambers announced that he and the other leadership would be launching a new initiative called Reduced Fear. Thursday night, the OWN network broadcast a feature from Lisa Ling’s Our America series, in which Alan Chambers offered his official apology to the ex-gay survivor community, and several ex-gay survivors confronted Mr. Chambers regarding how much his organization had damaged their lives. As a precursor to that broadcast, HuffPost Live featured Ms. Ling and Mr. Chambers, as well as Michael Bussee, Exodus cofounder who became perhaps its harshest critic, and Sean Sala, an ex-gay survivor. During that webcast, I asked Mr. Chambers what the aim of Reduced Fear was specifically, and he couldn’t give the audience a straight answer (no pun intended). [See the whole half-hour webcast here.]

Many ex-gay survivors, well acquainted with the slippery rhetoric of Exodus International, are reading between the lines and guessing that Reduced Fear will work with churches in encouraging them to “let” LGBT peopole into the pews whilst maintaining that same-sex relationships and gender variance are still “sinful” and “wrong”. In other words, a leopard trying to change its spots.

And there is the critique that the “apology” doesn’t really go far enough. John Shore offers an outstanding indictment, pointing out Chambers’s lack of contrition or desire to do the hard work of making amends, and that, in lieu of this hard work, he instead is using the “apology” as a platform to advertise his new organization.

If only leopards were our only concern…

Perseus and the Hydra. From http://www.theoi.com/Ther/DrakonHydra.html

Just like the mythical hydra, we know that even if every vestige of Exodus disappeared, this beast has many heads, and they reproduce.

In January 2011, Alan Chambers was part of a panel at the Gay Christian Network annual conference in Orlando. The story of how he ended up in perhaps the last place you’d expect him is quite convoluted, but irrelevant to the impact of what that visit meant. At the conference, he made two statements that served as a death knell to Exodus International. First, he admitted that “99.9%” of Exodus clients did not change their orientation. If you think that would be enough to bring down the organization, it wasn’t. His second statement was considered far more shocking: that there would be gays in heaven. As word got out of his statement, Exodus affiliates left the organization in droves, along with some Exodus leadership, and together they founded Restored Hope Network, who have since Mr. Chambers’s statement considered Exodus “apostate“.

Then there is the Exodus Global Alliance, an organization operating outside the United States who at one time was considered a sister organization to Exodus International. They are not disappearing anytime soon.

And then of course, bear in mind that Exodus International is an umbrella organization. It has provided to its affiliates, and to the public at large, literature, speakers, and media spokespeople. However, none of the organizations who until now were part of Exodus are going away. Some may hop on Reduce Fear, but my bet is that many will join Restored Hope. (Wow, Mr. Chambers certainly wasn’t pulling any punches in choosing the new name, eh?)

I don’t want to undercut the significance of the end of Exodus. Indeed, I personally know a number of activists and ex-gay survivors who have fought for years for this day. Much of that time was spent in direct dialogue with Mr. Chambers. And though it may  be construed that the end of Exodus is symbolic, I’ve learnt to never estimate the power of symbols. Still, if we think this is the end, it’s really just one step of many to go.

So many steps until we all recognize each other’s equality and humanity…

EDIT: Corrected oragnization names: “Global Exodus Alliance” to “Exodus Global Alliance”, and “Reduced Fear” to “Reduce Fear”.

Prestige

I’m a mutt. My roots are flung all across southern Europe, western Europe, and western Africa. My family has been in the United States so long that it’s probably safe to say that my “people” aren’t from anywhere other than America. And if there is a such thing as a distinct American ethnicity (apart from Native American ethnicity), then I’m a likely archetype.

It’s not the only thing mutted about me. My dialect is almost literally all over the map.

A couple of weeks ago, an amazing study of dialects came out  of North Carolina State University. This elegant and thorough study, best known for its eye-catching maps that are a lot clearer than one often finds in the fields of sociolinguistics and dialectology, caught fire across the internet, appearing most notably on Huffington Post and Business Insider. We even discussed the study in my Advanced Writing class.

The study endlessly fascinates me. I have long been interested in linguistics, to the point that a friend of mine and I devised our own language some years back. A lot of it is because, well, I talk funny. When I’ve spoken with professional linguists, they say that my dialect sounds something like a cross between North Dakota, Cleveland, and Maine. I even throw in some things that are way out there–a lot of Canadian “eh” and British “brilliant”.

There are a lot of reasons why I talk the way I do. If you dive into the maps in the study, you will see that my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, is very much a borderland, a fact which any linguist will confirm. You’ll notice that, for a lot of the word usages that were studied, the numbers are roughly even. There is a line, roughly equivalent to Interstate 70 through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, that divides the North Midland dialect and the South Midland dialect. Bloomington is also a college town, attracting people from all over the country and all over the world. I grew up hearing many different dialects, and in my adolescence, I particularly took up with a household from Brooklyn and a household from Boston.

Then there was my moving around in adulthood. For instance, what do you call a carbonated beverage? If you check out the study’s map, you’ll see that Bloomington, Indiana is about evenly divided between “coke”, “soda”, and “pop”. Now, in my family, who came from further south, it was called “coke”. (And some of my friends and relatives also said “sodie pop”, and I’m always surprised that that usage never shows up in such studies. I guess it’s too rare.) But then I moved off to St. Louis at age 18, where virtually everyone says “soda”. The word stuck, although when I lived in England briefly (how I picked up “brilliant” to mean “cool”), I discovered I needed to say “fizzy pop” to be understood. But I’ve lived in Minnesota for nine years, where most everyone I know says “pop”, and yet “soda” has stuck with me.

Another test is “you guys” vs. “you all” vs. “y’all” vs. plain old “you”. “You guys” holds a slight majority in Bloomington, though my relatives an hour south more often said “y’all”. I’ve had mostly African American neighbors about half of the time I’ve lived in Minneapolis, and I’ve picked up “y’all”–but curiously, I never did from my family. My pronunciation of “I” has become more Southern for the same reason.

Some of it was a matter of choice. In third grade, during reading time, my teacher pointed out that “either” and “neither” could be pronounced with an “e” sound or an “i” sound, and I decided that very day I would use the one I heard less often, and have said the words with an “i” ever since.

Which leads me to the point of this post. Something else that some linguists have picked up on my dialect is that it sounds affected, like I’m trying to put on airs. Now, they don’t think I’m trying to do this; rather, they think these are subconscious habits. The main reason they think I do this is that they notice I even change dialects from one sentence to the next.

Like I said, they don’t think I’m trying to do this. They think it’s subconscious. And now, after having studied some linguistics, I finally understand why.

In any culture, there is what is called the prestige dialect. A prestige dialect is the one you’re supposed to have if you expect to climb the socioeconomic ladder. As an example, they say that, if you want to make something of yourself in New York City, you can’t actually sound like you’re from New York City. A lot of us are aware of the idea without necessarily labeling it a prestige dialect. In America, we have what’s called a “newscaster dialect”. It’s not really an actual dialect–though some say it most resembles the dialect of Des Moines, Iowa. However, if you wish to advance as a newscaster, sounding like you’re from Brooklyn or Atlanta is straight out. So this dialect wields a lot of influence in media, which influences how we talk. We associate having “no accent” (there’s not really a such thing) with power and influence and belonging to the upper classes.

I think I picked up on this at a very early age, and tried to sculpt the way I speak to something other than what I heard around me. I also cannot underestimate the power of television on my upbringing. As my father cut us off socially to hide the abuse, television, where the newscaster dialect holds sway, was my only window into how other people talked. And, looking back, I think at least some of my schoolteachers tried to “correct” the more Southern parts of us kids’ speech. Then again, with a university renowned for its school of education, not all of my teachers were from southern Indiana.

And so I went through life accruing what I thought sounded like the way people talked who were above me socially. I’m almost certain it’s how I picked up the more East Coast/New England parts of my dialect. Where I’m from, such a dialect means you’re most likely associated with the university, and thus you are educated.

And I wanted desperately to be educated. I entered kindergarten functioning at a fourth-grade level. But, rather than offer me any enrichment, the principal told my parents that the teachers couldn’t do their job with me in the classroom, so their goal was to dumb me down to the other students for the sake of classroom management. By the age of 13, my father out of the picture and my mother disabled, we found ourselves in public housing. In my neighborhood, trying to get out of there was frowned upon; you were “thinking you’re better than everyone else.” My mother didn’t understand the mentality–she thought that everyone living there deserved better than what the neighborhood had to offer.

But, at some point in the past few years, something clicked. I picked up a bit of a drawl–living in Minnesota!–that gets even stronger when I go home to visit. I started using the word “ain’t” in the hope that my awful, horrible first-grade teacher (who deserves about a half-dozen blog posts of her own) might roll in her grave. I quit caring about how I might impress people with the way I sound.

And I wish we all would just give it up. Last semester I researched the subject of dialect discrimination for class. It’s an ugly thing, primarily because it ensures that people remain in the class into which they were born. We have plenty of mechanisms that do that job in our society as it is. If we, as an American culture, truly hold to the Horatio Alger principle that success comes largely through hard work, then we must dismantle the impediments that keep the hard work of certain groups of people from receiving its just reward.

Don’t believe that such things exist in America? I could write volumes on the subject, but I’ll close out with this one simple fact I stumbled across yesterday: An adult born into wealth is 2.5 times more likely to be wealthy without a college degree than an adult born into poverty with a college degree.

Not a one of us is intrinsically any better or worse than the next person. We all have something valuable to share with our species, and justice demands that honest work deserves honest reward.

 

PS: For a nice, quick-and-dirty study of American and Canadian dialects, check out this great blog post: http://dialectblog.com/northamerican-accents/

Darkness

I am a Trekkie. It started when I was a small child, and our local CBS affiliate would show Star Trek reruns after Saturday-morning cartoons. I don’t remember watching it so often, though, in part because I liked to play after cartoons, and in part because my didn’t like the show so much (because Spock’s ears freaked her out).

Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted when I was in junior high. However, it came on really late at night and I couldn’t watch it. When I moved to St. Louis, a station there was showing Next Generation reruns five nights a week at more reasonable hour of 10:00pm, as well as showing the new episodes on the weekends, and the brand-new show Deep Space Nine. I was obsessed. I had to watch it every single night it was on. I peeved a lot of my dormmates who rightly felt I shouldn’t have sole control over the television in the dorm lounge. Towards the end of my time in St. Louis, the franchise launched Voyager, which quickly became my favorite of the franchise.  Enterprise first aired after I moved to Indiana, but a schedule conflict kept me from the show, and my ability to follow the series was as ill-fated as the series itself.

The internet era has opened new windows to my Trekdom. I can watch nearly every episode of all six series (yes, including The Animated Series) at startrek.com for free (though it’s sometimes annoying which episodes are missing–how do you skip over the introduction of the Vidiians?) About three years ago I started playing Star Trek Online and got to explore my fandom in a whole new way. The game has its glitches, but it is most enjoyable, especially when I get to play with such a fantastic fleet.

Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the movies. I’ve seen all but two: The Final Frontier, which by all accounts is not very good, and Nemesis, which isn’t supposed to be good either, but better that Frontier, and which I wouldn’t mind seeing but haven’t had the chance. I saw the relaunch by J.J. Abrams in 2009, and, though I was confused a bit about how the franchise would proceed (no spoilers, even now), I thought it was good enough.

Now, I have to correct myself–I said I’d not seen two movies. I actually haven’t seen three. I have not yet seen the new movie, Star Trek Into Darkness, and I don’t plan to. I had wanted to see it, but an incident a couple of weeks ago turned me off completely to the idea.

Interestingly, what ruined the movie for me was a completely different franchise: Superman. As I was waiting for a video to load, I got a two-and-a-half minute preview of Man of Steel. I didn’t like what I saw. Most of the preview revolved around the destruction of an entire city, masses of people dying meaningless deaths in clever and innovative ways. It was what some call “torture porn” on a metropolitan scale, the Saw series with a cast of thousands, a devaluation of human life that brought me back to when I quit watching Total Recall after the “human shield” scene. I sat watching the opening of this Superman reboot (how many times has that franchise been relaunched again, not even counting the DC-universe reboots?) and said to myself, “There is no way I’m watching that movie, it’s just torture porn.”

“Star Trek Into Darkness” poster

And then it hit me that this is exactly what the trailers to Star Trek Into Darkness looks like. (Notice that even the poster is focused on a destroyed city, not on, well, trekking through the stars.) And the trailers to the last two Transformers movies. And the second half of The Dark Knight Rises that I saw at a Christmas party. And every other freaking “action” movie that has come out in the past ten years.

And I’m done. When I go to a movie, I want a plot. I want a story. I want the characters’ lives and deaths to mean something. Whether it’s comedy or tragedy, I’m looking for some meaning. And I really don’t get that out of a lot of the movies that come out these days. Now, to be sure, I’m singling out a particular genre in my writing here, and it’s not exactly one in which people are expecting Tolstoy. But if it’s a movie about heroes, shouldn’t the focus be on heroism, rather than the meaningless deaths of thousands?

The last thing I’m saying is that all our media should portray a Pollyanna fantasy. A healthy mind needs a balance of comedy and tragedy in what it consumes. But where is dignity? Hope? Heck, even just some nuance and complexity, instead of a relentless onslaught of explosions, would do nicely.

It has been said that, as a culture declines, its arts are the first to suffer. I think that’s really what’s going on here. I hope I’m wrong, and that we can yet redeem ourselves.

Persistence

Yesterday a relative pointed out to me some troubles with yesterday’s post. She said, first off, that I painted my mom to be more naïve than she was. After all, she said, her first husband–before my father–had slept around and run off on her. Second, I had the facts of the divorce decree simply wrong. Our father could take us out of the county but not out of the state, that this is a standard clause in custody arrangements. I maintained that I was right because I remembered. My relative pointed out that she, unlike me, had actually read my parents’ divorce decree.

To the first point: One of the things I don’t like about blogging is the demand for conciseness. Though I could in theory write a 5,000-word blog post, I don’t have the time to write it, and no-one wants to take that long to read a blog post. And so I compress, and avoid explaining some of the nuance. My mother, like every human being on the planet, is a complex person.

As to the second point, I relied mostly on a memory I had when I was ten. My father was going to take us to an amusement park near the Kentucky border. My mother said that he couldn’t because he was violating the divorce decree. The police got involved and everything. (In the end, our father took us, but it wasn’t a fun trip. He sat at the entrance and just told us to run off and do whatever. He wouldn’t give us any money whatsoever for concessions, and they charged five cents for water, and so we ran around on a hot day with no fluids.)

And so I tried to remember why there was the big brouhaha, and I thought it had to do with taking us out of the county. But now I have to admit that my memory was wrong here somehow. The trouble could have been that my father never told my mother directly that he was going to take us on the trip, having my brother tell her instead. It could be that, at the time, my mother misunderstood the divorce decree. Or it could have been something else that I can’t think of right now.

All of this calls to mind two important issues. First, autobiography is not memoir. In an autobiography, the author is reporting history. She collects facts and does research, even though she’s writing about her own life. An autobiography focuses on facts. In memoir, the author relies on her memory and the memory of those around her to inform the writing. And a memoirist is not merely reporting history, but is telling a story. She is using plot devices and story structures and all the other elements we use to tell a good story. But real life is not a “good story”. In real life, things don’t have a beginning, middle, and end–life just flows on. But stories demand a beginning, middle, and end, and so the memoirist frames her life to conform to the conventions of storytelling. Similarly, human beings are ridiculously complex, but for the sake of telling a story, especially a shorter story, the writer doesn’t dive into the 37 reasons why a character does what he does.

I am not an autobiographer, I am a memoirist. That distinction is crucial to understanding what I write. I have no intention to get facts wrong or to misrepresent anyone or anything. But I do try to tell a good story. And if I do get something wrong, as I did yesterday, I want to be called out on it so I can get the facts straight. I have learnt that it is better to be wrong and speak up than to be wrong and remain silent. If I speak up, then my wrongness can be pointed out, and I can change my mind and be right, whereas if I remain silent, I stay wrong.

Image from realitybitesartblog.blogspot.com

“The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí

And then there is the niggling issue of the reliability of memory. Science keeps showing us it’s not particularly reliable. The human brain is constantly restructuring itself and putting the pieces together the best it can, albeit imperfectly. We only have the illusion that our memory persists, when in fact our memory warps and melts and drips.

Is this a terrible thing? I’m of the same mind as a former professor of mine, Leah Savion of Indiana University (probably the best teacher I’ve ever had). She has an idea (which I really wish would get some notice in the academic community) that she calls “naive logic”. It’s the premise that, despite all the demonstrable failings of the human mind–its inconsistencies, its inability to grasp even basic logic, and yes, its faulty memory–it has nonetheless served humanity well for several hundred thousand years and is responsible for getting us to evolve to the point we are at. Therefore, despite our brains’ deficiencies, they serve us well nonetheless and therefore ought not to be dismissed when we delve into a deeper understanding of philosophy.

Now, the implications for this idea are profound in many areas of philosophy and cognitive science, and I won’t bother to dive into those here (because, again, none of us wants a 5,000-word blog post). Suffice it to say that I think I, and all of us, are usually doing the best we can with that wad of grey stuff between our ears. It’s part of why I try to treat people with trust and grace, even when others might consider doing so unwarranted. I believe that to live otherwise would be pretty much impossible. We would always be paralyzed, doubting every little fact of the universe.

So keep doing the best you can. I will.

Father

I thought the day couldn’t go uncelebrated. Granted, it had gone by completely unnoticed the year before, but in the tumult of moving and changing schools and adjusting to life in a single-parent household, it makes sense now that I had let it slip by. But I thought, this year, I would make up for that error. I would find some way to celebrate Father’s Day. The only thing missing was a father.

My father was a deeply troubled man before he met my mother. The drug abuse and promiscuity he brought into their marriage were completely foreign to her. She had sought her dream–to marry a clean, hard-working man to be a good husband and a good father–but the dream turned into something worse than a nightmare. Early on, she tried to escape the beatings and forced starvation. When I was five months old, she fled with me to her relatives in the next county. But this was small-town America in 1975. Married women had only just earned the right to own property. And my father’s surname carried a lot of weight in their part of the country. He sent the law after her, who told her that she would have to return with me or face kidnapping charges. Like I said, women’s rights in small-town America in 1975.

For years my mother plotted her escape, during which time my sister and two brothers were born. My father grew more violent, and his plans to murder my mother grew more obvious, even to me as a child. But as time moved on, he cut off every possible avenue. He monitored my mother’s gasoline usage to ensure that she only went to the grocery store when he would come back from working as a long-distance truck driver. We kids weren’t allowed to see any of our classmates outside of school. If my mother had to go to a doctor, she could only see his doctor, to whom he would feed all sorts of lies about her before she went. He asked the phone company to set up our service so that no outgoing calls could be made at all, only incoming. (They couldn’t do that.) At last, our neighbor (whom we were forbidden to speak to) sneaked to my mother a clipping from the newspaper about the shelter for abused women and children. That got the ball rolling. My mother filed for divorce. The following ten months were a swirl of outrageous and bizarre happenings that I won’t get into here, but at last the court awarded custody to my mother and the divorce was finalized.

My father had been given the most generous visitation rights imaginable, especially since my father had tried to kill my mother. It began that he could see us whenever he wanted as long as he called my mother and gave 24 hours’ notice. But he showed up whenever he wanted, without a call. When my mother took him to court over this, he complained to the judge that as a long-distance truck driver, his life was far too unpredictable to be able to give 24 hours’ notice, so the judge rolled it back to one hour’s notice. Even then he didn’t call. The only other stipulation on his visits was that he couldn’t take us kids out of the county, which he also routinely broke and the courts would do nothing about. I recently asked my mother how, with as much of a danger to us as he’d proven to be, he was awarded carte-blanche visitation rights. She replied that her lawyer advised that he be  given absolutely whatever he wanted, visitation rights included, so that what happened in Indianapolis didn’t happen. I of course asked what happened in Indianapolis. She said there was a man there who murdered his children, and when asked why, he said that it was because he’d lost visitation rights.

With all that flexibility, my father didn’t show up that Father’s Day when I was ten. He would show up less and less over the years as, in a way, he forgot about us. He would vanish for months on end, almost like how his child support vanished entirely three months after the divorce was final. The last time I saw him conscious, I was 18. At 23, I got word from his sister, whom I hadn’t seen since I was three, that he lay in a coma in Louisville. He died three weeks after.

And so that Father’s Day when I was ten was fraught with mixed emotions. In a sense, the day had no real meaning for me, because I hadn’t had the kind of father one would want to celebrate. But I longed for some inkling of normality in my life. I wanted to be like other kids.

So, on that Father’s Day, I found myself at John and Laura’s house. John was 20, Laura was 15, yet they attracted a lot of the neighbor kids as they would tromp off into the woods and play soldier. Though I had trailed my brothers and sister to their house that day, I did not like playing soldier. So I found myself sitting in their kitchen, with their father in the house. Their father was a taciturn and unsettling man, the sort I have seen common amongst many of my generation’s fathers who had gone off to Vietnam. But I had determined that, for that day, he would be my father. I didn’t tell him this. I didn’t tell him much of anything. He wasn’t exactly a man a ten-year-old could converse with. But I wanted to salvage something of the day.

He had opened the freezer. I noticed a box of Pudding Pops. And, desperate for two words out of the man, I asked for one. He gave it to me, silently. And I ate it. And he apparently told John and Laura, who in turn told every kid in the neighborhood. That’s how I earned the reputation of being greedy and ill-mannered. Even as adults, my siblings have at  times derided me with that story.

Years passed, and Father’s Day was still this huge deal seemingly wherever I went. I started going to church, and this church made a big deal of the day, handing out trophies to fathers with the loudest tie or whose children had traveled the greatest distance that day. Once again I felt cut out from this celebration.

As an adult, I found myself in ex-gay “therapy” for ten years. Some have asked me how I persisted in it for so long. One of the greatest motivating factors was the possibility of finding a wife so I could be a father. I wanted to be a father so desperately, even after I left the “therapy” and embraced myself as a gay man. But then I found myself in a train crash of identities–gay, low-income, disabled, and extremely single–proving that, no matter how deeply I longed to be a father, it would not happen. You can’t have everything you want in life. This is as true as the day is long.

So how now can I honor this day? I can only encourage the fathers and mothers and grandparents and aunts and uncles and nannies and everyone else out there raising children to raise them well. Do all you can to instill kindness and compassion in them. Our survival depends on it.

UPDATE: Not quite a retraction.

Talent

Two-and-a-half years ago I auditioned for America’s Got Talent. I figured I didn’t stand a chance, but I thought it would be interesting to learn how they make these talent shows, and getting audition experience is always good. To this day, I’ve never even watched the show apart from random clips online. (I don’t have a TV because I’m a TV addict in recovery.)

I did learn a lot. I learnt how much is faked for the TV screens. The scene where the crowd stands in a long line waiting to fill out their forms? Totally faked–we had all filled out forms and submitted our forms before that scene was staged. Plus, we were all instructed to hide our coats because, despite the fact that it was February and 10°F outside, we were told that, because the show would be aired in the summer, they didn’t want the audience associating the show with winter.

And auditioning before the celebrity panel? That doesn’t happen in the first round, though they make it seem so on TV. Instead, we were all divided by talent, each talent was broken down into groups of six, and each group was sent off to a small room to audition. I auditioned for a friendly young Indian-British woman, who was apparently part of the production staff, as well as her assistant who was taping.

By astounding coincidence, each of the six of us sang in radically different styles. There was a country singer from Wisconsin. An R&B singer, a genre I had assumed would dominate the auditions. A twelve-year-old rapper had come all the way from Chicago to Minneapolis. There was another twelve-year-old who sang opera. Her mother was the most stereotypical stage mom you could imagine. At one point, before we entered the audition room, the mother asked, “How much do you want this?” and the girl spat out her computer program, “With all my heart.” (I wanted to throttle the mother and tell the girl that, whilst her technique was advanced for her age, she was really flat on her high notes.) One guy in his twenties sang Broadway. He said that he had auditioned for American Idol before, and the judges asked if he sang anything modern, and he told them, “No, I’m a Broadway singer,” or, as he might as well have told them, “I really don’t care that the entire premise of your show is to look for a contemporary pop singer, so I’m going to waste my 20 seconds of audition time.” (He told me that at American Idol, you only get 20 seconds to audition. At America’s Got Talent you get 90.) And finally, as for my part, I was marketing myself to the show as a jazz singer, so I performed my own jazz rendition of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”.

But, as I said, I already knew that I wasn’t going to advance past the first round. It was not because I totally whiffed the opening of my song. (The judge told me I could start again; the Broadway singer told me afterwards that in American Idol, they don’t allow you to do that. And I totally get that: different shows, different purposes, different approaches.) And it wasn’t just because I wasn’t even the best singer in the room (that would have been the R&B singer), let alone the Minneapolis Convention Center. It was because I understood that my back story was not ready for prime time. (I think everybody in the place knew that the one who would go far was this guy in the warm-up area who did these impossible things with yo-yos. And he did.)

I had filled out my paperwork several days before the audition day. The contract was several pages long, most of it fine print. One of the most telling things is that you give the show permission to have them portray you however they want, and that you rescind your right to go back on them if they show you in an “unflattering, embarrassing, or insulting” light. (If that’s not an exact quote, it’s awfully close.) Another part of the application is to provide some back story. If you’ve never noticed, contestants on these talent shows almost always have dramatic back stories, which the judges have been tipped off beforehand even though they make it sound like it’s the first time they’ve heard it. They filter out folks who don’t have much of a back story because that doesn’t make for compelling television.

The big question they asked about the back story was, “What challenges have you had to overcome in the pursuit of your talent?” And for me, the biggest obstacle I’d had to overcome was that my church had forbid me to sing on stage because my ex-gay “therapy” had not yet been successful, and if I stood on the stage as less than fully “cured” and totally heterosexual, I would be seen as representing the church’s beliefs as something other than what they actually were.

Two-and-a-half years ago, such a story would have been much too controversial for a prime-time family show.

Look just how much has changed in that amount of time. I saw a video this morning of an America’s Got Talent audition from this season by a young opera singer named Jonathan Allen. (The video has since been removed for copyright violation.) He told of how his family kicked him out on his eighteenth birthday because he is gay, and that they haven’t spoken to him in the two-and-half years since. (Odd coincidence–that means he was kicked out right around the time I auditioned.) And he had nothing but support from the audience and judges. And it doesn’t hurt that he had a truly remarkable voice.

We’ve come so far, and yet have so far to go. There was gay bashing spree in Columbus this week, coming on the heels of one in New York City. And that’s just talking about the United States–LGBTQ folks are having to face much worse around the world.

And that’s just looking at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities. There is so much more going on the world. Assaults on the poor and homeless and immigrant and disabled–whether with fists or with legislation. Women who are on the constant lookout for potential attackers. The exploitation of children and workers. And wars–always, always wars.

And I wonder, how long? How long will we speed our extinction? When will we wake up to the truth that we are all equal and important and need each other?

UPDATE: America’s Got Talent has posted a shorter video of the performance on their official YouTube channel. See it here.

Heads Up

With today’s breakneck primary curriculum, focused more on getting students to fill in the correct ovals than on actually learning and applying anything, I doubt that young students have any sort of “down time” during the class day. This was not the case when I was a child. Our teachers were at times desperate, having fulfilled the day’s schedule, to figure out how to fill in five or ten minutes in the course day.

One of the most effective ways my teachers would fill in the gap was with a game called Heads Up Seven Up. In the game, the teacher would call seven students at random to the front of the class. Then the rest of the class was to put their heads down on their desks and close their eyes. The seven selected students were to each go about the classroom and tap one child on the shoulder. After seven seated children had been tapped, the tappers returned to the front of the classroom, whereupon the teacher asked the seated students to open their eyes, raise their heads, and indicate who amongst them had been tapped. Then each of those children was to guess who had tapped them.

It sounds like a simple guessing game, but in the world of the elementary-school student, it is fraught with sociopolitical implications. You knew there was nothing random about who was tapped. People tapped their friends, and didn’t tap their enemies, and a socially well-adjusted child supposedly had both.

I was not a socially well-adjusted child.

One day in third grade, my teacher Mrs. Benson rounded out the last fifteen minutes of the day with Heads Up Seven Up. She called forward seven children, whilst I joined the rest of the class in putting down our heads. It was a stressful moment.  Would I be tapped? Would a child deign to call me friend? Would I accidentally put my head up when tapped and get disqualified like that one time in second grade?

And then, I was tapped! I had a friend! That day, anyway. As any schoolteacher will tell you, the social landscape of children evolves constantly. Some days I had a friend and some days I didn’t. But that day I had a friend.

Mrs. Benson called us to rise. I looked across the seven students before me, and that is where my troubles began. On the positive side, there was not a one of them I would consider an enemy. But neither did I think any of them was my friend, even for that day. They all resided in this grey area. How on earth was I to pick?

I hoped that I would be the last to select my tapper, which, by process of elimination, meant I would not have to pick anyone. That is not what happened. I was the very first.

I stood up, as I was supposed to, to select my tapper. I looked across their faces for some hint of guilt to no avail. No-one tipped their hand. I flushed as I struggled to come up with the name of the guilty party. I used every deductive tool available to my eight-year-old mind, but came up fruitless.

As I went two minutes without saying anything, I invoked the grumbles of my classmates. Three minutes. Four, and then the grumbles turned into calls: “Just pick someone!” But I thought the goal was to guess correctly, and to “just pick someone” risked guessing incorrectly.

Five minutes. Six. The uproar grew, and even Mrs. Benson urged me to just pick anyone, it didn’t matter. My hands trembled. I nearly cried.

Seven minutes and I had no answer. And then the 2:30 bell rang and it was time for us to go home. As I shuffled to my coat hook, the eyes of all glared upon me. I had ruined the game.

I wish I could say that I have escaped that mentality. Though I’ve worked on it mightily as an adult, the urge to do something perfectly, even when that urge invokes the ire of my peers, still plagues me. The inability to “just pick something” when I have myriad options before me can shut me down. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in life is that there is often no one right answer, that choices are often value-neutral, and that if I do perchance make the wrong choice, I can recover from and learn from the consequences. Day by day, I’m learning how to defeat my “analysis paralysis”.

And now you know why I don’t post on this blog every day. Often, it’s not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I have so many things to say, and I’m afraid of not choosing the right one.