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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.

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Introductions

I realised a couple of days ago that, for the first time, I am blogging and have at least a small handful of people reading my writing who do not actually know me face-to-face.  This is of course a good problem to have.  But it does leave me feeling like I should impart a bit of my autobiography to aid those who are coming into my my blog and the life it revolves around in media res.

I was born and grew up in Southern Indiana.  I have three siblings younger than me who all came in quick succession.  I was a bright but awkward child, the latter aided by the fact that my father was an abuser, and abusers use social isolation to hide abuse.  Thus, I did not really grow up around any children my own age.

When I turned eight, my mother escaped with us and filed for divorce.  After a fiasco of my father having temporary custody during the divorce, my mother won custody.  However, owing to the abuse, my mother suffered permanent disabilities.  Added to the fact that my father did not pay child support and my mother could not get the courts to get him to do so, I grew up quite poor, in a community with a very sharp class divide.  This experience made me very aware of class-consciousness.

Once we escaped my father, I took an interest in going to church, in part because it was one of the things he forbade.  I ended up in a congregation in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and then attended one of their Bible colleges in St. Louis.

During this entire process, I was slowly coming to the realisation that I was “not like other boys”–because I liked other boys.  Not knowing what to do, I turned to the authorities in my life–the college authorities–and the short version of the story is that I was required to attend ex-gay “therapy” in order to remain in school.  I remained in the “therapy” much longer than I remained in the school, which I had to leave for financial and health reasons.

I relocated to my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, and transferred to Indiana University, where I majored in philosophy.  This was a misguided choice of major for a few reasons, chief of them being was that I wanted to go into creative writing for at least a chunk of my career.  It took me awhile to realise that the Jean-Paul Sartres and Ursula LeGuins are by far the exception in the world of philosophy.

But you don’t make every decision in life.  Some decisions get made for you, quite unexpectedly.  In May 2004 I received two letters from the State of Indiana.  One informed me that I would lose my medical insurance, which I needed for the treatment of disabilities, and the second stated that there would be major cuts to my school funding.

One month later, I boarded a Greyhound for Minneapolis, sight unseen.  I only knew two people here, both online–one remains a dear friend.  But I had heard great recommendations for the city, and as I researched it, it had everything I was looking for: progressive and gay-friendly (offering me my first realistic chance of coming out), with a large arts community, a stable economy, and good health-care and transit services.  It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I got a job in customer service at Minnesota Children’s Museum, which I held for four years until the museum was hit in the first wave of recession cuts in November 2008, when I was laid off.

I was adrift for a while after the layoff, and I got really depressed.  Changes in student-loan laws opened up the opportunity for me to return to college, which I did in January 2012 at Metropolitan State University, this time majoring in Creative Writing where I belonged.

In the midst of all this was a sea change spiritually.  After having to leave the evangelical Church for entertaining the idea of living a celibate but openly gay life (which takes more explaining than this format allows), I ended up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, where I found a safe space to ask the questions innate to my sceptical nature.  And those questions led me right out of Christianity.  And it was okay.  I spent a while with a small Quaker group, and more recently have sporadically attended a Unitarian-Universalist church.  I mostly see myself as a pilgrim, always journeying, as one friend put it, “always an emigrant, never an immigrant.”  I pick up something valuable wherever I go that I keep.

My day-to-day life now is focussed on school, which I attend year-round.  In my free time, I sing with Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus and serve on Metropolitan State’s arts-and-literature editorial staff.  I half-joke that I am terminally single.  I do, however, live with a bicycle named Wilbur.

Threadbare

Some of my posts will be older writings which can be found elsewhere on the internet.  I figure it would be smart to collect all my best writings in one place.  It also, well, lets me be lazy on occasion, and it is a cold, rainy, dreary day in Minneapolis.

The following story was originally published to I’m From Driftwood in April 2009.  I have made here a couple of minor edits.  This account illustrates my sense of humour (I claim to have no sense of humour but some friends claim otherwise).  I can’t try to be funny, my jokes fall flat, but funny things happen to me, and I can relate them.

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RRRRIIIPP!

I checked for the source of the sound, and felt a small hole in the crotch of my jeans.  “Fifteen hours,” I assured myself.  “Fifteen hours, and I can unpack my bags and change pants.”  I consoled my mom for the millionth time, telling her I would be fine, as we both fought back the tears and my brother prepared to drive me to the Greyhound station.

The previous three weeks had been a whirlwind.  I had received notice that the funding for my philosophy degree at Indiana University had been cut sharply, and that my state insurance had been eliminated.  When you live in a small town in a conservative state and have a serious medical condition, you don’t mess around—you move.  Spending several sleepless nights on campus computers, I talked with friends about where to move.  Toledo?  It had an intriguing opportunity for me to advance my art career, but it was too small for my taste.  Chicago?  I loved to visit, but it was too big for me to live in.  Seattle?  Nice, but too far for moving on a budget.  Minneapolis…

I pulled out the ticket.  Bloomington to Indianapolis to Chicago to Minneapolis.  I had packed as many of my belongings as I could into the Greyhound maximum of four bags— two to go below and two carry-ons.  (More of my possessions would follow thanks to friends visiting Minnesota, and the rest would go in a landfill.)  Surely, my two smallest bags would fit into the overhead compartments.  Unfortunately, my memory of the size of Greyhound buses proved very optimistic. “You can’t fit those on here, they’re too big, they’re gonna have to stay off,” called out the driver gruffly.  “But, I’m moving, I don’t have a choice!” I begged.  He relented.  I stuffed the smallest bag underneath my seat, and straddled the other carry-on…

RRRRIIIPP!

Behind me lay most of the world I knew. Sure, I’d studied awhile in St. Louis and interned in England. And sure, I was born in a different town, but Bloomington was the map of my heart. Bloomington was where I started coming out—and felt stifled in expressing it.  Bloomington was where I had made most of my friends—and lost most of them as I came out. Bloomington was where I got my education—and had it taken away.  Bloomington was where my art career budded—and smothered under a lack of opportunity.

What was I losing, really?  My relationships with family were always awkward; perhaps they would benefit from distance.  The economy would be far better outside my college town, where a Bachelor’s degree would get you $6.50 an hour and cup of coffee—and I didn’t even have the Bachelor’s degree.  I was sure I would thrive where I could live out and proud.  The past was behind me; a bright future lay before me.  And my present?

RRRRIIIPP!

We pulled into the downtown Chicago station for a 2 1/2-hour layover.  I knew one of the little shops in the station would have a travel sewing kit.  My plan was to safety-pin together the ever-growing tear.  I figured it worked for my punk friends, so why not me?  Frazzled from a severe lack of sleep, I gingerly slipped six safety pins along the course of the rip.  After all, it only had to hold eight more hours, right?

RRRRIIIPP!

We stopped at the McDonald’s in Tomah, Wisconsin at the cusp of night and day.  If Greyhound weren’t contracted to stop at McDonald’s, and were I not starving, I would have avoided that grease trap and tried to at least get a nap.  Sleeping with a huge duffel bag squeezing me into a seat proved to be impossible.  I blearily ordered a caramel sundae and an apple pie, hoping to God that no one in the restaurant noticed my deteriorating jeans, the rip now down to my knee.  I had yet to learn Upper-Midwestern passive-aggressive behavior, to learn that they wouldn’t say anything until after I was gone.  At least, I thought, I’m wearing boxers.

RRRRIIIPP!

Minneapolis at last!  I was crazy, I thought, moving to this city without ever visiting.  But crazier things had been done.  I just had to call my friend Chris to pick me up, and I could finally get rid of these jeans.  Except…  “Sir, I understand your situation, but there are families with young children in here, and I’m going to have to ask you to step outside the station.”  Great, I’m in a strange city, half-naked, being kicked outside where I could get arrested.  I crossed my fingers, hoping that Chris would hurry up.  Indeed, a few minutes later, my chariot arrived, and the first thing we did was to go to his place for me to change my pants.

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It is coincidence that I am posting this story on the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard.  You catch a glimpse of homophobia in my life in this story.  Shepard’s death affected me profoundly, and I will write more about how so later.