At this time ten years ago, when I turned 30, I had just moved to a new city. In the city I’d moved from, most of my friendships were pretty new. I moved very suddenly because I had to; my opportunities had completely closed up. So I settled into a big city to start a new life. The world was so big and fresh and wonderful. Life begins at 30, I declared.
Today I turn 40. I’m about to move to a new city. In the city I’m leaving, many of my friendships are pretty new (at least judging from my party RSVP’s). I am moving with plenty of advance notice because I get to. The city I have been living has opened up possibilities to move on. So soon I will be settling into a little town to start a new life. The world is so big and fresh and wonderful.
Life begins at 40.
Dear Gentleman at the Bus Stop:
First off, I want to thank you. You see, I’ve been experiencing a bit of writer’s block lately, and I’ve been looking for inspiration. Our ninety-second interaction encapsulated so much of what is wrong with society that I now have writing fodder for days.
And because you don’t know what was going on before our unfortunate encounter — not that you bothered to ask — I thought that I’d fill you in (on the snowball’s chance that you happen upon this post).
I missed a bus. By thirty seconds. That was to take me to an appointment that I have been waiting on for two months. I needed to contact the clinic to let them know I was running late and to see if there was any way they could accommodate me. But I didn’t have the clinic’s phone number. You see — as I’m 99% certain you noticed — I don’t have a smartphone. Because I can’t afford one. I get my phone through the LifeLine program, and it offers no internet capacity.
So I was stuck trying to figure out how to get their number. I tried calling someone who I figured would have the number, but we had multiple issues in getting the correct number to me. And in the middle of all that, I thought to contact directory assistance. If you haven’t used it lately, it’s all automated, and you have to say things very clearly, like “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS MIN-NE-SO-TA” and “MED-I-CAL CLIN-IC”. And as clearly as you’re talking, over the din of the downtown of a major metropolitan area, you can barely understand a word the computerized voice is telling you. You’re just looking like and idiot saying “MIN-NE-A-PO-LIS”.
And as I’m doing all this, I’m pacing about. I know, this is verboten in Minneapolis. At a bus stop, you’re supposed to stand still. Well, when it’s below zero out, I move, because moving keeps you warm. And all that pacing may make you look like an idiot. But — unlike everyone else in this town — I don’t complain about the cold.
So, in the middle of all this, the lady standing next to you asked me if I was okay. And I replied — in the foolishly honest manner that I have — that I missed my bus to go to the clinic and that I was having trouble getting their phone number.
And at this point, you engaged me. You told me that my shoe was untied. And I thanked you, but said that I needed to focus on something else right now. Because it was more important that I get hold of the clinic in a timely manner than that I tie my shoe. And, quite frankly, in forty years on this planet, I have never once tripped on my shoelaces.
And then you noticed my coat. And you decided it was not a winter coat. I hate to break it to you, but I was actually warm underneath my coat, probably warmer than you . It has a fitter cut than the enormous parka you were wearing, and so at first glance might appear more appropriate to spring or autumn, but I’m baffled that you didn’t notice how ridiculously thick the fabric is.
And that’s when you told me that I wasn’t dressed for winter. I forget the exact wording, because shortly after this statement, your reasoning spiraled so far out of control that to take down an exact quote from you for this blog was not the first thing on my mind.
Now, here, sir, was your first mistake. Because one would think that if a human being observed another human being underdressed for below-zero weather, and they were engaged in conversation about this very fact, the first thing you should have done was to inquire whether there was anything you or anyone could do to ensure I was more warmly dressed.
(And yes, I said “should”, despite all that liberal-arts public education I’ve had that has told me the word “should” is a bad word. But — and I hate to break it to the academy — this damn relativism has produced an I-can-do-whatever-I-want mentality that is, frankly, screwing society over. I only hope it’s not irrevocably so.)
Now, inexplicably, you decided that my supposedly thin coat made me “crazy”. And that the clinic I was going to must be the “crazy clinic”.
And so, sir, you might have felt quite proud of yourself for your quick-witted jibe. But you know what? Your snide statement only further contributed to the stigmatization of mental illness in our culture — and that stigma leads to people killing themselves, because words like yours make it harder and harder for them to seek the help they need. So, if you notice an infinitesimal smudge of red on your hands tonight, you know where it comes from. Words have consequences.
Now, sir, I don’t know what you thought I was going to do next. Since you had deemed me “crazy”, you might have thought that I would punch you, or rant about the aliens that live under my tinfoil hat. But you seemed to enjoy what I did next.
I’m about to get to the point where I question your upbringing. But, you see, you said “thank you” as I walked off to the next bus stop. You thanked me for removing my allegedly “crazy” self from your almighty presence. And because you have the capacity to say “thank you”, I know that somewhere rattling inside you is some modicum of decency.
So why did you not use that decency at any point within our interaction? You seemed quite proud of your capacity to bully an emotionally distraught person. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find anyone other than yourself to give you an accolade for doing so. Did you honestly think I was going to just stand there and continue to listen to your insults? No, sir, because that would be “crazy”.
I honestly have no idea what your story is — because, from the outset, you ensured that we would never have a chance to exchange stories. Oftentimes, when people act as you did today, when they have the hopelessly wrong notion that some human beings are ontologically superior to other human beings (and of course, they usually see themselves in the former group), I assume that their parents must have somehow inculcated that idea in their heads early on.
This is, of course, a drastic oversimplification (but you were in the mood for oversimplification today, weren’t you?). The majority parents do the best they can, there are societal pressures that undermine good parenting, and some kids just grow up in defiance of their good upbringing.
And yet, I’ve also seen bad parenting in action. See, one of the great many things you don’t know about me is that I spent several years of my career working with families, and I saw all the good attitudes and the bad attitudes that parents pass on to their children. And, frankly, it’s the kids who are being brought up with the bad attitudes that make me nervous for humanity’s continued survival.
But regardless of where nature and nurture fall in this equation, at some point, we all grow up. We become adults. And, for the vast majority of us — with the possible exception of those whom you might erase with the word “crazy” — we become responsible for ourselves. We have to take stock in our lives, and if there was some poor nurturing, whatever the source, that wove its way into our history, we have to take responsibility to unweave it.
You looked to be about fifty. About time you grew up.
I hope that I just caught you on a really bad day. When I was working with families, I was taught to always assume that bad behavior was merely indicative of a “bad day” and not of a larger pattern — even when I saw the same bad behavior from the same people day after day. I hope that whatever got stuck in your craw worked its way out and that you had a good day.
If this is not the case, if your behavior today is the norm for you, then I hope that you’re not a parent. I hope that you haven’t raised your children to believe that your behavior — so utterly lacking in grace, compassion, and the most rudimentary elements of humanity — is somehow socially acceptable. And if that is how they were raised, then, by all that is good and just, I hope that they have taken up the responsibility to undo those lessons.
You see, I don’t get the privilege to be a parent. The best I can hope for is to admonish every person I come across to raise their children to be loving and kind and compassionate. See, I’m committed to making the world a better place, and that means doing everything I can to undo the consequences of the sort of behavior I saw in you today.
You were astonished at my behavior today, though I fail to see how I did much of anything that was beyond the pale, other than that I didn’t exhibit the icy unflappability that is considered the greatest Minnesota virtue.
Well, guess what? When I crossed Hennepin Avenue, getting hold of my acquaintance once again to finally get the correct phone number, I shared my amazement and befuddlement at how a grown man saw fit to run off another man from a bus stop.
Some would say your actions were “crazy”. But I’m not going to erase you with that word. I’m just going to hope for good things for you.
You surprised me, because somewhere in my head, I have this notion rattling around to assume good things of people.
And I guess we’re not yet to the point where I can make those assumptions about everyone.
But, I tell you, I’m going to do my damnedest to work for a world where we can one day.
Peace to you,
PS Since you didn’t ask exactly where I was going, and only assumed: I was going to a dental clinic, not a “crazy clinic”. And they were able to fit me in when another patient didn’t show. And now I have a nice smile — one that you can never take away.
- I am grateful for my friends. My sanity, my strength, my joy–I am where I am because of you.
- I am grateful for my family. I am fortunate that the people I was born into love me and look out for me. A mother who has been the model of unconditional love and maternal sacrifice, a sister who has been my biggest cheerleader, a brother who somehow manages to look up to me despite my screw-ups (and who has been taller than me most of our lives), and a brother to whom (I am confident) I will one day be restored.
- I am grateful for the state of Minnesota. I may pick on you for your (in my view) weird culture sometimes, but so many of the good things in my life have come as a direct result of living here. Whether the grad-school gods keep me here or take me elsewhere, this great place will always occupy a sizable part of my heart. Donchano.
- I am grateful that I am always warm and well-fed. Three-and-a-half years ago, I was dangerously close to becoming homeless. A bit of determination and a lot of luck kept me from that fate. There are few things I want more than to save every man, woman, and child across the world from that same fate. I work for a world where we will do that. And I remember every day that I am fortunate to have what I have.
- I am grateful for music. It is my heartbeat, almost literally, as there is always a song in my head. I am grateful that I know how to sing and can play a few musical instruments, so that, in my awkward little way, I can share this most wonderful of human creations.
- I am grateful for art. I am grateful for the artists who train and work tirelessly, often with little real reward, to share the most intimate parts of their minds and hearts with the world.
- I am grateful for literature. I am grateful for every book that is on my shelf and the million more that are not. I marvel at the infinite power of the written word, and am humbled by the fact that I’ve had a little bit of training to wield this tool.
- I am grateful for every second I have to be alive.
On Facebook, I am that guy–the one who scrutinizes memes and articles for the faintest whiff of bovine excrement. I’m the one who replies with links to Snopes.com –even if their determination is that a story is partially true. I’m the first to point out that the Borowitz Report, Daily Currant, Landover Baptist Church, and Christwire are all satire sites.
They aren’t true. They make stuff up. They’re making jokes.
I don’t point out these errors because I want to be a high-and-mighty know-it-all, out to humiliate anyone who makes the slightest mistake in judgment. It is simply that I believe in the value of truth. I’m all for a good joke, but if the joke is being spread as actual facts, then it behooves me to set the facts straight before the lie is taken by all to be the truth. And it’s nothing that I don’t expect others to do with me–if I am wrong, I want to be called out and shown what is true.
But the fact remains that the satire gets passed on as truth. Most of the time, it eventually gets called out and everyone can get back on board with truth. But there is always the risk that a lie can perpetuate, and the consequences are too dire to allow that to happen.
There’s actually a rule of thumb, almost as old as the internet itself, called Poe’s Law, that explains why we fall so easily for these satire stories. The rule, simply put, is that, unless the writer goes out of his way to show that a satirical depiction of extremist views is indeed satire, it will be impossible to distinguish the satirical work from actual accounts of extremism. And, to be sure, sometimes when someone posts something that I think must be satire, it turns out to be true.
I ran into this issue a few weeks ago. A day before Governor Mark Dayton signed same-sex legislation into law in the state of Minnesota, word spread across Facebook that Representative Michele Bachmann would move out of the state if the Minnesota state senate passed the law, which Dayton had already vowed to sign.
This made a lot of people on my friends list ecstatic. She is not their favorite person, nor they hers. She has maintained her Congressional seat for six years, not because of her skill and prowess (her faux pas and outright lies are the stuff of legend), but because she benefits from a ridiculously gerrymandered district drawn specifically to include people who are guaranteed to vote for Not-The-Democrat.
But something just felt off about the story. I spotted the error almost immediately. It was published by the Daily Currant.
And so I spent a good chunk of time debunking the source as the article cropped up over and over and over. And over. Eventually, I had to just back away from the computer and get out of the house to actually celebrate the legislature’s passage of the bill. I went across to the street to a gay bar for a bit of conviviality I was to share with a friend, but our signals crossed and she ended up elsewhere. No matter–the mood was most celebratory in the bar, strangers singing and dancing and parading a rainbow flag around the bar.
Then someone brought it up: “Michele Bachmann said she’s going to move now!” And now, offline, I was stuck having to explain yet again that this was simply not true, without the benefit of linking to the articles that were already debunking the story. It was just little ol’ me, a stranger, my word against what “everyone” had told the guy.
And when I awoke this morning, I thought I was going to have to go through this all over again. I hopped onto Facebook, and the first news I saw was that Bachmann was not going to run for re-election. Here we go again, I thought.
Except that it’s true. And now, as she likely fades from the public eye, the bizarre relationship I have had with the woman draws to a close.
Now, I’ve never met Congresswoman Bachmann. She doesn’t know me. And I don’t live in her district. I live in the district next door to hers, whose representative is Keith Ellison, perhaps the most liberal member of the House of Representatives–in other words, nearly her diametric opposite. She has made all kinds of vile statements about gays–and thus, about me.
And yet, her outrageous lies about me and my friends (never mind other lies she’s told) brought about a pivotal point in my life. Here was someone who, though never having met me, hated me. She saw me as subhuman, as not her equal. And I saw all about me people whose response to her hatred was hatred. The notion was that they would stop hating her when she stopped hating them.
And this made absolutely no sense to me. It put the responsibility for one’s own actions on another person. That’s not how responsibility works. And because this other person–Bachmann–showed no signs of letting up on her views, it created a never-ending cycle of hatred.
So I decided that I had to be the one to make the first move in relation to her. I had to treat her as my equal even if she didn’t believe I was equal. I had to love her even if she hated me.
Look at the alternative. All around the world we see cycles of hate creating endless wars, putting us always in peril of making ourselves extinct. (A previous post gets into this idea further.) And the only way we can avoid this is if each of us makes the move to disrupt the cycle.
And so I have found myself repeatedly defending someone who hates me. I’ve received no small amount of flak in doing so. But I cannot escape the idea that she and I are inherently equal, and to insist she is inferior to me accomplishes no good, even as she declares me inferior to her.
She and I are equal–just as I am equal to my other seven billion siblings.
This is truth. And I must speak the truth.
Sunday was Mother’s Day. On Facebook, my friends traded out their userpics with photos of their mothers, and wrote glowing tributes. Well, most of my friends did. For other friends, Mother’s Day is not a happy. Their mothers have passed on and they miss them terribly. In other instances, my friends have strained relationships with their mothers, and for still others, my friends wish that their relationships with their mothers were good enough to call them “strained.” A couple of my friends shared their pain and grief on their walls, and in at least one instance, got chastised for it, which only added to the pain.
I had an idea for a Mother’s Day post for this blog, and I probably still will write it soon, since the idea is far more encompassing than Mother’s Day. But my gut told me to not write it Sunday, if for no other reason to acknowledge and honor my friends’ grief by abstaining.
If there is any consolation that at least some of my friends can take (I won’t presume all of them since I don’t know how everyone’s mind works), it is that they can see Mother’s Day coming. There it is, the second Sunday of May every year. They can brace themselves. But even then, they can’t really know what is going to trigger them, when, or how. There are 364 other days on the calendar when they can get walloped out of nowhere with pain and despair.
I have generalized anxiety disorder. I am always tightly wound. But sometimes, the smallest thing will send me for a loop and I’ll be in even worse shape. I freeze up. I feel like I’m going to throw up, except I don’t, and sometimes I’d rather throw up because I’d at least feel better after. My heart pounds. I get a weird fluttering sensation all through my body. My mind either bounces around all over the place, or fixates on one idea and spins through it over and over. I take anxiety medications, but they’re no magic bullet. Sometimes I am able to soldier through the day, and sometimes, my absolute best efforts to overcome the anxiety leave me either huddled in bed, terrified to even move, or stuck in front of my computer, endlessly zooming through the same cycle of a half-dozen .
Yesterday was “one of those days.” It began as I awoke from a nightmare. Now, I almost always have nightmares, and in fact, they are the same half-dozen or so nightmares that I’ve had for the past five or ten years. It is important to note that every single one of these nightmares is based around past regrets. Because I am so familiar with the dreams, most mornings I can just bounce out of bed and start my day. But sometimes, the pain of the past leaves me huddled in bed for hours on end, convinced that whatever I can accomplish can’t possibly make amends for my failures. That’s how I spent the first two hours of yesterday morning.
At 5:00 pm yesterday, Governor Mark Dayton signed same-sex marriage into law in the state of Minnesota. This improves the lives of so many of my friends who are in same-sex relationships, some of them for decades. They’ve had some real issues when it comes to things like hospital visitation and inheritance rights that are now no more. I am ecstatic for them.
Yet the dread with which I awoke compounded itself over the course of the day. As happy as I was for my friends, I was sad for myself. A decade after coming out, I still have very limited and mostly disastrous experience with dating. I have had a couple of tepid relationships that had no chance of developing into something long-term. My friends have gradually settled into their grown-up lives with partners and families, and I see them far less. I am very alone and, unlike an Emily Dickinson-style introvert-writer, very much do not want to be. And that makes me even more anxious.
Yesterday, I was supposed to go t0 the first-tenor sectional rehearsal. I was then supposed to go to an abbreviated chorus rehearsal, after which we were to go to St. Paul to perform for Governor Dayton and several thousand other celebrants. I was to join my brothers in song in Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus to perform “Marry Us”, “Walk Hand in Hand”, and finally, “Love Is the Law” with none other than its writer, Chan Poling.
Instead, I failed. In the grips of an anxiety attack, the last thing I can think of is going out in public and face the derisive stares my erratic behavior inevitably draws. But I failed the chorus–I had a job to do, and I let my medical difficulties get in the way, when I know there are choristers who are dealing with more difficult medical issues who attended and performed. I failed to support my many friends on one of the happiest days of their lives. And I failed myself, because I will forever be haunted by the fact that I could not get myself to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I don’t feel any better today. I feel like I have the entire global population of monarch butterflies in my stomach. The only thing that is getting me going is the fact that tonight is the first night of my summer classes, and there is no way I can miss. School seems to be the one commitment I have been able to master even in the midst of my medical issues. In this, I am most fortunate. It bodes well for me if and when I attend graduate school. In one arena of life, I have wrangled this beast. I only wish I could do so in more. Perhaps I will yet.
Many across the United States are aware that Minnesota is in the midst of a nasty battle for a constitutional amendment (an amendment the Republican-led state legislature felt so important that they had the state government shut down entirely via lack of budget until the amendment was put to ballot) that will restrict the rights of emancipated adults to engage in civil contract (the contract of legally-recognised marriage) and restrict the religious freedoms of churches who wish to follow their beliefs by marrying same-sex couples. This concerns me. Not because I am gay (I don’t think I’m quite marriable). If I were straight as an arrow, I believe this would still concern me. See, this battle is being fought by and large by people who claim they are fighting this battle in the name of Jesus. When I read the Gospels, I see that Jesus repeatedly lambasted those who wanted to embroil themselves in other people’s moral affairs. He actually praised the Pharisees for their practises of personal piety, but then condemned them for legislating everyone else’s morality ad nauseum. This Jesus has been forgotten somewhere along the way.
I’m also concerned because I live in the Twin Cities, what I sometimes call a “gay bubble,” and so many I converse with are utterly convinced that the anti-marriage amendment will be defeated, no problem, and they’ll point to some random poll to prove it. Yet every single poll I’ve encountered has said that, though a tight race, the amendment looks like it will pass. Moreover, I know a number of people who are working at various levels of Minnesotans United for All Families who all confirm my assertion and refute that of my acquaintances. I think living in this gay bubble inures people to attitudes outside the bubble
But as concerned as I am about this amendment, I am even more concerned about a second ballot issue which has garnered less national attention. The proposed amendment would require a “photo I.D.” in order to vote. Can’t afford the fee for a photo I.D.? Well, just head down to your DMV and they’ll make you a special, free voter ID. It sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it? But then the truth rears its ugly head….
The hue and cry that got this proposed amendment put on next week’s ballot was claims of rampant voter fraud. Extensive studies have demonstrated that this rampant voter fraud simply doesn’t exist. The claim that it’s easy-peasy to just go down to the DMV? Never mind the many mitigating factors that can keep someone from the DMV. Just ask the good folks in Wisconsin. They were told that they could do just as Minnesotans are being told, to go down and get your free ID at the DMV. But then the DMV employees were instructed specifically by the state government to do everything possible to *discourage* applicants from obtaining these voter IDs. (Watch this video to see these tactics in action.) Or voters of a certain political persuasion (read: Democrat) had their closest DMVs taken away from them outright. Never mind that the implementation of this special voter ID will cost in the neighbourhood of $50 million with no clue as to how to fund it.
If this sounds like a diatribe against the Republicans, it is somewhat, but only because they are the ones who have seized upon this issue. (I have diatribes I can write against the Democrats, but that will have to wait for other writings.) Look at the stats across the country. There is a clear correlation between the ease with which one can vote in a particular state and the likelihood that that state will favour one party or the other in elections. (I say this having come from Indiana, one of the more dependably Republican states, which is also one of the hardest states in the country in which to vote. For example, you have to be registered at least thirty days before election time, and the polls close at 6 p.m.—the earliest in the entire country.) The Republican leadership are well aware of this correlation, and have admitted as much. So, on the surface, this is appears to be a matter of one political party subverting the political process to gain control, which is in itself repugnant. (For the record, I agree with George Washington in thinking that political parties are an inherently bad idea.)
But the heart of the issue is much more insidious than a simple power play. It is nothing less than the assertion that some human beings are inherently inferior to other human beings. A couple of months ago, I haphazardly ended up in a debate (I hate debate, or rather what is mislabelled as debate these days) on Facebook with a friend of a friend (there is no enemy like a friend’s friend). I gave him my personal account of how, two years ago, I was nearly turned away at the polls under the existing laws for reasons related entirely to poverty. And this friend of a friend asserted that he didn’t care. He didn’t care about whether circumstances beyond my control kept me from the polls. Furthermore, he stated that he could hear a million stories that were the same, and they still wouldn’t change his mind about ensuring that this repugnant amendment becomes enshrined in the Minnesota state constitution.
He stated it right there: he believes his Story is more important than mine, or those of the hypothetical million others, and by extension, *he* is more important than I or the million others are. And I maintain that the belief that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others lies at the core of most of our social ills.
And that is what this fight—what many fights—are about. It would take unmitigated gall to walk up to someone and say, “Yeah, you know? You could vote just fine last year, but I’m taking away your ability to vote next year.” Of course, most backers of this amendment would dare not express such unmitigated gall to someone’s face, instead hiding behind the anonymity of the ballot box and the socioeconomic, racial, and cultural cloisters that keep nearly all of us from ever truly learning the experience of anyone whose Story isn’t like our own.
Last night I went to a Halloween party. As I rode the bus through increasingly conservative neighbourhoods out to the inner-ring Saint Paul suburb of my hosts, I saw on a number of lawns a maddening sight that was the impetus for writing this article: signs, side-by-side, one saying to “Vote No” on the anti-marriage amendment, but to “Vote Yes” on the voter suppression amendment. This repeated sight angered me because the posters of the signs could not see that both of these amendments are cut from the same cloth of inequality: that homosexually-coupled individuals are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to live lives of the same quality as their heterosexually-coupled counterparts, and that the poor, the disabled, the elderly, college students and anyone else who doesn’t “fit” that look to be marginalised by this amendment are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to participate in one of the foundations of a functional democracy. Both of these amendments maintain that some people are fundamentally inferior to others, an assertion that undermines the very notion of democracy.
And so, I turn back to my earlier illustration of all of us hiding in our own little homogeneous cloisters. We have the gay, the lesbian, the ally who will fight tooth and nail for their own rights and of those close to them, but are at best indifferent to the rights of those who do not run in their own circles. And that is repugnant.
To vote no on both of these amendments is to affirm the dignity and equality of all our citizenry and to support democracy. It is the absolute least we can do. May we do this and far, far more to uplift our species.
A final note: this is my last word on the subject. And I will not be lured into what-passes-for-debate-today on the subject, because there is no possible way you can convince me that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others.
Edited 28 Oct 12 to add a link regarding Indiana voting shenanigans.
Edited 5 Nov 12: I also want to add that supporters of the amendment have stood on the idea that the amendment will “reduce voter fraud.” The evidence of voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, far smaller than the statistical margin of error. Yet this amendment would remove from thousands the ability to vote in order to sift out one or two voting cheats. From a mathematical standpoint, this makes no sense.
Edited 5 November: Fact-checked, figure “hundreds of millions” for implementation of Voter ID measures brought down to “in the neighbourhood of $50 million.” Still way too much for an unnecessary measure