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A Hard Man to Understand

I return from an extended – and unintended – hiatus. It was never my intention to be gone from this blog for so long. I had got wrapped up in the finishing touches of my undergraduate career. Three weeks ago, I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. This is a milestone that, three years ago, I never thought I’d reach. And now I move on.

To Alaska.

I accepted an offer from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and this August will be relocating to pursue an MFA in creative writing, with a focus in nonfiction. I am both excited and nervous as I move on to this new phase of my life, but I figure that’s typical of anyone making a major life change.

***

I’m not quite sure when my father died. I remember that his funeral was Memorial Day weekend, 1997. At the time I was in a haze of pharmaceuticals, intended to bring me down from what was believed at the time to be a manic episode but what is now understood to have been a severe anxiety attack brought on by the perils of trying to turn into a heterosexual within a homophobic environment. When I was 23, there was much I could not articulate to myself, let alone to the doctors, so they took their best guess based on the precious little information I permitted myself to divulge to them.

So, when I got the news that my father (whom I had not seen in five years) lay comatose in a Louisville hospital, I was already emotionally buffered by a medicinal regimen that had me sleeping sixteen hours a day. My aunt Joyce, whom I hadn’t seen since I was three, called one evening with news, flew me out to Louisville to see my comatose father. There, I met an entire side of my family who had had zero interest in my siblings or me until that point. They had to make a good showing of seeing their dying brother, even though several of them hadn’t bothered to tell their own spouses he existed.

What put my father into the hospital was tricky to unravel. Ostensibly, he had a heart attack, but the full story was more sordid. By all accounts, he had contracted an STD, and for treatment, he had obtained a topical ointment from the Amish neighbors his family has been friends with for decades. But my father, his mind muddled, took the ointment orally, which left him keeled over on the side of the road. Heart attack via poisoning. One of the teenage sons of the Amish family found him and arranged for an ambulance.

Thus I found him intubated in Louisville, surrounded by a family who had regarded him at best as a black sheep. My father was the only one out of the seven Baker siblings who was not sent to college; in fact, he was barely literate. Though I don’t know too many details, he was brutalized by his parents – my grandparents – growing up. As I’ve done some digging, I’ve discovered this abuse may have been a chief cause for his antisocial personality disorder.

I was once told that you can’t psychoanalyze dead people, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. My father was always resistant to treatment, because, as he put it, he was the only one in the world who didn’t have a problem. Yet when my mother, suffering a mental breakdown from his abuse, checked herself into the hospital, her doctor, after hearing my father rant a mere five minutes, deduced he had schizophrenia.

But, from all the digging I’ve done, I think that antisocial personality disorder is the most accurate diagnosis. First of all, my father seemed genuinely unaware of what a friend was, or how to make them. This affected my childhood greatly, since he didn’t allow me to make friends. When I was five, he bought me a dog because I was lonely, and when I was seven, he proposed that he and my mother adopt a child so that my siblings and I would have someone to play with.

He was also notoriously impulsive. In second grade, I came home from school one Friday to find that I was to get in the truck because we were taking a weekend vacation to Opryland. We kids crammed in the back, in the covered flatbed. When we got as far as English, Indiana, we picked up my maternal grandmother, who took the front seat whilst my mom joined us in back. The rest of the way to Nashville, my father cussed my grandma out in every way imaginable. We all crammed into our pop-up camper-trailer for the weekend. At Opryland itself, we didn’t do really do anything – my father ranted about the cost of concessions, so we didn’t eat or drink at the park.

On the flipside, he could be cold and calculating. When I was seven, I came home from school to discover that no one was there. This had never happened to me; there was always, at least, my mom and siblings. My father didn’t allow my mom to go anywhere but the grocery store, and he monitored the fuel gauge in the car to make sure she didn’t go anywhere else. I thought that my family had disappeared off the face of the earth and that I would be all alone in the world for the rest of my life. At seven.

They showed up an hour later. My father declared that he had just custom-ordered a brand-new Buick Park Avenue. (Custom-ordered mostly to get a Diesel engine, because my father, a truck driver by profession, stated that the only real automobiles had Diesel engines.) My mother was distraught; she didn’t understand how we could afford another car when we couldn’t afford groceries. She also didn’t understand why we couldn’t afford groceries. All she knew was that the grocery budget he gave her was getting smaller and smaller, eventually to the point that he no longer gave her money for food at all. She didn’t know that the money was going towards drugs and sex workers.

Now, this sounds pretty random and impulsive, right? To buy a car on a moment’s notice, when you aren’t exactly wealthy? Here’s the thing: he demanded that the car be put in my mom’s name. So, later, when he wanted to make himself look good to others, he would demonstrate his generosity by pointing out how he bought his wife a car, never mind that he forbade her to drive it. And if he wanted to make my mom look bad, he would tell people how she was wasting his money by buying a new car.

There were efforts at various points to get my father the help he needed. But antisocial personality disorder is notoriously slippery, for some of the reasons I mentioned above. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t have any problems, so he wasn’t about to pursue help for himself, even in the face of his obvious struggles in life. At one point, my mother, in fear of her life, had the police ambush my father when he came home from work, and they put him in jail for twenty-four hours for observation. But he was released on his own recognizance. They told my mother, “He’s high as a kite, but there’s nothing we can do about that.” And my mother, completely naïve about drug culture and possessing a singular grasp of the English language, had always thought the expression “high as a kite” meant “angry”, not “on drugs”. And when my father held up his fourth wife – the one after my mom – at gunpoint, he was put in jail for three months and then underwent a psychological evaluation. He was then released. He later told my mom, “They tried to put me away, but they didn’t know what they were doing. They had me checked out by a woman.” Implying that he knew his way with women, how to manipulate them to get what he wanted.

My mother barely escaped with her life when I was eight. My father (who, remember, was a truck drive and hardly ever home) was awarded temporary custody because he had a job and my mother didn’t. For six months he put us under the care of an estimated 20 random strangers. He offered a free home and generous pay to anyone who would take care of his kids. And he didn’t know any of these people because, remember, he had no idea what a friend was or how to make them. These were people he knew of second- and third-hand through work acquaintances and suchlike. Some were serious drug users who had no business around any kids. One couple had never been in a house with plumbing before, and didn’t understand how anything worked, including the thermostat, which they asked me to operate. I, at eight, thought you set the thermostat for the temperature outside, and we were going through a record-breaking heat wave. One was an eighteen-year-old with a one-month-old baby.

None of them were fit to take care of us, But they all quit as soon as they realized how dangerous my father was, he with the always-loaded pistol and the constant, very real threat that he’d use it. As far as my father was concerned, the only thing that mattered was that my mother not have any access to us, because that was the one thing she wanted out of life, and he was bound and determined to take it from her. After six months of this random, half-assed caregiving, my father broke his leg on the job, and “cared” for us the rest of the summer. I don’t want to say what all we kids went through because I don’t have the permission of my siblings to divulge some of what went on, and I likely will never get that permission. Suffice it to say that all four of us endured things no child should.

You would think the courts would have been more observant of what was going on with us kids, given the circumstances. But remember that my father “knew his way with women”. We were assigned a caseworker named Cecilia who was to come to the house once a week. And my mom warned Cecilia up front that my father would try to manipulate her, and would start treating her like his first wife Leila, who died in a mysterious motorcycle accident that many believe my father planned, but was able to slip through the fingers of the law by having the right last name in a small town. When Cecilia would come to the house, my father would ask her to make him a cup of coffee. And she obliged. And when the courts asked for follow-up on Cecilia’s observations, she merely stated, “Oh, he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances,” at which point she was dismissed from our case for loss of objectivity. She later confided to my mother that she was dead on, that my father was trying to turn Cecilia into Leila.

After nine months of divorce proceedings – intentionally dragged out by my mother’s attorney so as to get past my parents’ ten-year anniversary, thus qualifying us children for my father’s Social Security insurance – my mother was awarded custody. And my father began his slow drift from our lives. (At one point, he lived in Houston for five months without anyone knowing it.) He would drop by our home haphazardly, in bald defiance of the one-hour notification ordered by the court. He made such a stop one weekend towards the end of my high-school career. I was busy with extracurriculars that weekend, so I didn’t get to hear him declare that he didn’t love us kids and never did, that he thought he didn’t know how to love. It was probably the most honest he’d ever been.

The last time I saw my father conscious was at the beginning of my first year of Bible college in St. Louis. He showed up unannounced on campus with a hundred-dollar bill. (My father’s family only ever pays for anything with hundred-dollar bills. You cannot look poor.) He’d done the same after my high-school graduation, promising me a hundred dollars a month until I graduated from college. I saw the money three times total, the last being that visit the beginning of September 1992. That was the last I saw or heard from my father again.

The Amish family showed up at the funeral before the service began, but left before the actual funeral, because to stay would have been a violation of their faith. The only people at the funeral were his extended family; he died friendless. My aunt Joyce was selected to write his eulogy for the funeral director to deliver, because my father was the oldest and she was the youngest; thus, she knew him the least and was therefore the most likely to be able to say something positive about him. The best she could muster was that he was “a hard man to understand”. My father had grown so heavy, it took eight of us to carry his casket. When he was buried in the cemetery of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church that Memorial Day weekend 1997, alongside Leila, his siblings remarked how odd it was that he was born on Veteran’s Day and died on Memorial Day weekend, yet never served in the military. The military was lucky to not have had him.

So, this weekend, as I am bombarded with the red, white, and blue of militarism, my thoughts don’t go to my culturally expected obligations to the relative location of the uterus from which I plopped, an obligation I will never understand. Instead, I think of the man who was hard to understand. I think about all the folks out there who need proper psychiatric attention and will likely not get it because of the red, white, and blue they plopped into at birth. And I think of how my goal in life ever since that weekend has been to be understood.

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On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe

You will notice above this post a link to a new page. This page will lead you to the .pdf of a multigenre essay I wrote this past summer, entitled “On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe”. (Alternately, you can click here.)

The essay details the history of Exodus International, from the perspective of former leaders and clients, as well as from my own experience. I have chosen to publish this story for free and online so that anyone may have access to the information therein, and learn about the inherent dangers of attempting to change one’s sexual orientation. I hope that this work might help anyone who wants to know more about this history, or who might be considering such treatments.

Limited Time Offer

My last post generated a bit of controversy amongst readers and friends. Some insisted that I thoroughly could write fiction if I chose to dedicate the time and effort to improving my craft. I was perhaps a bit too surreptitious in the first paragraph–I wanted to allude to the fact that, indeed, there is some choice involved.

However, I still maintain that I can’t write fiction, and here is why:

At present, there are forms of writing that in which I am far better. I write memoir and poetry well. I’m further ahead the learning curve with both of those art forms. And I have a pressing deadline: I must have writing samples prepared for graduate school by the end of the calendar year. This must be the best work I’ve ever written. And it needs to be in the genre I choose to write for graduate school. The schools want me, amongst other things, to write in the forms in which my writing is most mature. My fiction writing is not possibly going to get there by the end of the year.

There is another, deeper concern involved as well, also related to writing. I don’t have much time to write. I don’t mean in my day–I mean in my lifetime. All I have to do in life is a limited-time offer.

Act now and we’ll throw in this free waffle iron! Photo by Cloganese. Via Flickr.com

I’m not wanting to sound alarmist and melodramatic, prognosticating my death. But I have to be honest. I wasted an entire decade of my life in ex-gay therapy–time I couldn’t commit to personal or professional development because it all had to take a back seat to the impossible attempt to turn into a heterosexual (or a giraffe, which was just as likely and just as necessary).

And I can’t necessarily predict a long life, either. Though my mother’s family tree is filled with centenarians, it’s hardly the case for my father’s side. Indeed, I buried my father when he was only 59. I am also (as I have discussed previously) diagnosed with psychiatric illness. Those who suffer mental disorders can expect a lifespan 25 years shorter than those undiagnosed. And it’s not because of suicide, like you might think, but rather from physical ailments that go untreated because doctors ignore symptoms, believing they’re just in the patient’s mind.

Believe me, I hope to beat every one of these statistics and become yet another centenarian to grace my family tree. But, with all of these factors taken into account, I perhaps am more deeply aware of my mortality than some. Seeing a parent die when you’re only 23 can do that.

So I run on the assumption that I’m not going to be around as long as the next guy. And I have a lot that needs to be said. I often say that mine is a case of the message being more important than the messenger. And I write so that something of me will live on after I die.

So it’s not for lack of desire that I don’t write fiction. I simply must focus my energies on my strengths, so that something worthwhile comes of the time I have left on this planet. This to me is far more important than my random desires.

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.]

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.

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.

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.