Monday, July 28, 2014

Two Faces of Poverty

The civic duty of every citizen, I have decided, is to kill three hours a year re-certifying or signing off on some new regulation or another. This is how I spent my Monday morning. The service center is located in a part of town that went from wealth to dire poverty and back. Now it is home to loft apartments and trendy coffee shops. Streets are regularly paved these days, the way only capital can.

Residents being pushed elsewhere at once wish they'd held onto properties and houses that could once be had for nearly nothing. At the back of the room, they talk about old times, the way Washington used to be. Conversations focus on soul singers and long-shuttered venues. Sooner than I might care to think, I'll be having my own conversation about the good old days when everything made sense.

The real face of poverty are a young mother and her ten-year-old daughter. Because I was the only other white face in line, she struck up a spontaneous conversation. I couldn't help but notice the way she'd treated her body over the years. Drug addiction had left her skin leathery, her facial features slightly off-center like a shattered window pane. I wanted to look away because the spectacle pained me, but wanted to be polite enough to grant friendly eye contact. My best friend growing up had an alcoholic father, and I watched the years of drinking finally catch up with him.

Mother and daughter were inseparable. They were more like sisters, a curious dynamic that could be both beneficial and harmful to the younger of the pair. They had each other and I got the feeling there were few other people in the lives of either. It was them against the world. Now they had embarked on a great adventure, driving halfway across the country to settle in Washington, DC. When asked for the reasons why, she noted with a straight face that she intended to help President Obama out with the job.

I didn't realize at first that she was actually quite serious. This was the stuff of delusions, but I hoped that it was harmless enough. I hoped she'd recognize the folly of her ways and make different plans. She was enough of a trusting soul that I could see how someone might take advantage of it. This is what concerned me most. Likely, many already had. Washington, DC, can be a very unfriendly place without a guide, and it certainly isn't Colorado Springs.

The daughter addressed me very innocently, believing that if I'd just spent the last twenty minutes talking to her mother, she could be comfortable in my company. I'm usually very uncomfortable around kids, never knowing what to say or what not to say. In a survivors' group, I remember a seventy-year-old woman talking about her own uneasy relationship with children. It was different with her own, she noted, but she was never going to volunteer to supervise or spend much time with anyone else's genetic contribution to the free world. Nods registered in many of those sitting across the room.

When it was my time in line, the female workers behind the counter smiled at me. To them, I was fatherhood material. The news quickly spread across the center. For the rest of my three hour stay, I was treated with incredible politeness by every female worker. Children usually like me, and yet I push away from them as quickly as I can. I wondered what I truly represented to mother and child, or the women who saw me as paternal in a good way.

Lives like I have described above are not uncommon. I enjoy observing people from the other side of town, a reminder to not intellectualize who the poor and needy really are. They are a young mother and her daughter uprooting and replanting with few resources, no friends, a roof over their heads, but not much more than that. In a way, it's the immigrant experience made over again for our times. We provide a few basic services here and there, but fathers and caregivers cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Quote of the Week

"I never care that [my characters] are "strong". I never care that they're even affirmative. I look for that thing that's human and recognizable and emotional. You know, we're not perfect, we're not heroic, we're not in control. We're our own worst enemies sometimes, we cause our own tragedies ... that's the stuff that I think is really compelling."-Julianne Moore

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Video

You say I only hear what I want to
You say I talk so all the time so.

And I thought what I felt was simple,
And I thought that I don't belong,
And now that I am leaving,
Now I know that I did something wrong

'cause I missed you.
Yeah, I missed you.

And you say I only hear what I want to:
I don't listen hard,
I don't pay attention to the distance that you're running

Or to anyone, anywhere,
I don't understand if you really care,
I'm only hearing negative: no, no, no (bad)

And so I, I turned the radio on, I turned the radio up
And this woman was singin' my song:
The lover's in love and the other's run away,
The lover is cryin' 'cause the other won't stay.

Some of us hover when we weep for the other who was
Dying since the day they were born.
Well, this is not that:
I think that I'm throwing, but I'm thrown.

And I thought I'd live forever,
but now I'm not so sure.

You try to tell me that I'm clever,
But that won't take my anyhow,
or anywhere with you.

You said that I was naive,
And I thought that I was strong.
I thought, "hey, I can leave, I can leave."
Oh but now I know that I was wrong, 'cause I missed you.

You said, "I caught you 'cause I want you
and one day I'll let you go."

You try to give away a keeper,
or keep me 'cause you know
you're just so scared to lose.
And you say, "Stay."

You say I only hear what I want to.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Who are the Next Generation of Prophets?

What follows is my own story. I include it to heighten awareness of what often goes unsaid and unspoken. The problem is as old as the human race itself, but like war, it continues. Everyone with an opinion must write with an audience in mind, and must form one's arguments accordingly. Every story like the one to follow takes the same relative trajectory, yet is unique and different.

The twin problems of rape culture and sexual assault may seem minimal, but with time I've realized how truly prevalent they are in our society. Forgive my boldness. This a harsh topic for many who do not daily confront it, but I bring it up one more time to serve my cause. Since many rapes and sexual assaults go unreported due to shame and intimidation, it's impossible to have definitive numerical understanding at our fingertips. But even if we had that hard data, would numbers and statistics alone serve anyone's greater purpose?

I've never shared this account before now. Until a particularly instructive therapy session in the recent past, I never knew it for what it was. As it commonplace with survivors, I had rationalized away what this act really was, minimizing and blunting its impact. It's a very common coping mechanism. Now I must keep myself focused on reality and linear time, which is to say that my brain lies to me, daily and constantly. It transforms what really happened to something less painful, softer, and maddeningly evasive.

I was a impressionable sophomore in college, newly out, and nowhere near full acceptance. Queer students had few resources at my college, with the exception of Gay/Straight Student Alliance. An LGBT center was being planned for construction, but was completed after I graduated and I could not benefit from it. I took the options available to me. The group was more social than instructional, a fundamental lacking that always bothered me. It could have been much more, but it often became a hook up point for gay men, another issue that stuck in my craw.

Now I know him for what he was. He was an opportunist, having heard about our group somehow, intending to benefit from his presence there. The organizers and sponsors had been too nice to turn him away, as he was not a student and had no reason to be there. He sat right next to me, stealthily but obviously to whomever might be watching closely. His legs touched mine frequently, deliberately. That was my first sign as to what he was up to, but I ignored it. Maybe he'd get the hint that I wasn't interested and leave me alone.

I remember his face well. He had a lazy eye and wore a baseball cap. That baseball cap would rather dramatically be burned two days later, as he had left it in the backseat of my car. The collective attitude of both of my parents was not sympathetic. To them, what I had done had served me right. So when I set the hat afire with lighter fluid in the driveway, my father asked me why I'd done such a stupid thing. I told him precisely why and he backed off, uncomfortable, and never raised the subject again.

The man in question broached my boundaries a little at a time. His hands moved further and further down my back, eventually moving other places. He built upon his gains, keeping the ultimate destination in mind at all times. The whole time he was chatting me up and feeling me up as we sat alongside a park. At his request, he suggested we move a couple blocks away, so that what we were doing was less conspicuous. I cranked the car and we pulled onto the curb of a remote stretch of roadway at the top of a mountain.

I did not want to do this. The thrill of doing something this risky and dangerous was perversely appealing, on one hand, but this was not what I wanted. Had sex been removed entirely from the equation, I would have been pleased, but this sequence of events was all about sex. This was not just about having a conversation. To this day, I do not know exactly why I didn't resist. I do not understand why feeling terrified was such a sexual high but just as repelling. I may never.

I saw him later at next year's Pride parade. He even bothered to introduce himself to me. Shocked that he would even dare contact me again, I nervously uttered a few incomprehensible words and then got as far away from him as possible. Male rape survivors are treated differently. Women are thought to have inferior physical strength to their male attackers and unable to prevent sexual assault. When I shared what had happened to me with male friends, they felt that I should have physically overpowered him. Few were understanding.

Over the years, I've learned that stories like my own are not uncommon. Because I am a man, I have a different set of variables at play than would be the case for a woman. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse tend to respond to their sexuality in one of two ways. The first way is to be afraid of sex. The second, which is my own, is to become promiscuous and hyper-sexual. I recognize promiscuous is a loaded term, one used to blame and guilt, but in this context, I think the word choice is apt.

To see this as a moral failing on everyone's part doesn't ring true. That is not enough. We must develop true community and a communal spirit. We cannot criticize injustice when we do not know our neighbors and do not take an active part in their lives. This is a problem as ancient as Moses' who came down from the Mount with his Ten Commandments in hand. In the meantime, I see another generation's bumper crop of prophets descending from the bluffs, coming directly behind my own.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Something Different

I had a busy day of medical appointments today, so I had no time to post.

Before I say another word, I want to preface my reason for posting the video below. Once, I, too, was a teenager and a college student. But I am now a man in his mid-thirties. I'm just not there anymore. Quite by random, I ran across a video of a high school or college aged young woman talking on her cell phone, and I must admit it makes me cringe.

Do not misunderstand. People like her will someday form the next wave of activists and planners to follow me. I am conscious of feeling marginalized and having my words to not be taken seriously because of my youth. But for the sake of good old fashioned curiosity, I found a video taken of a young woman talking on her cellphone while seated on a park bench. She will not talk like this when she is my age. (I hope)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I Don't Want to Spoil the Party

I don't want to spoil the party so I'll go
I would hate my disappointment to show
There's nothing for me here so I will disappear
If she turns up while I'm gone please let me know

I've had a drink or two and I don't care,
There's no fun in what I do if she's not there
I wonder what went wrong I've waited far too long
I think I'll take a walk and look for her

Though tonight she's made me sad
I still love her
If I find her I'll be glad
I still love her

I don't want to spoil the party so I'll go
I would hate my disappointment to show
There's nothing for me here so I will disappear
If she turns up while I'm gone please let me know

Though tonight she's made me sad
I still love her
If I find her I'll be glad
I still love her

I've had a drink or two and I don't care
There's no fun in what I do if she's not there
I wonder what went wrong I've waited far too long
I think I'll take a walk and look for her

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Trigger Warnings: You'll Know Them When You See Them

I experienced substantial trauma early in life. Piecing together the few memories I have of those times has produced a skeletal narrative, one that has frequently frustrated me. From time to time, mild side effects of what is probably PTSD crop up. Sometimes I experience spontaneous panic attacks that mercifully subside quickly but since that time, I’ve always been unusually highly-strung and jumpy. Fortunately, each of these symptoms has its life-cycle, from start to finish. Until the past few days, I could always count on them to be temporary.

Saturday afternoon I watched a movie, alone in my apartment. The theme was innocuous enough, one of those black and white film noirs full of witty dialogue, dames, and a rapidly unfolding mystery. Before I knew it, and all at once, I was experiencing substantial psychological pain. Dealing as I do with depression, which is to say regularly, I knew this wasn’t it. I felt dirty and anxious. My hands shook for hours. For most of a day, I was not a sexual being. The very thought of sex in any form with any person disgusted me.

Taking all of this in, I thought to myself, this sounds like something a rape survivor would say. And then I realized, I AM a rape survivor. And I may never know what produced this response. It could have been a subtle thing like certain sounds or even the way a room was lit on the set of the movie. The cause could be one of ten-thousand things, which is one of the most exasperating things of all. During this experience, one is not in control of one's body or one's brain. Subtle and unsubtle reminders of this lacking on your behalf show up as uninvited guests.

I had read the symptoms of what I was now experiencing a time or two before, but without direct experience, I could have never prepared for it. I used to say that I wanted to remember it all. Now I’m not so sure. There may be a reason why my brain has clamped down on past memories like sutures. I thought that knowing every detail would finally create full healing, that I could have blessed resolution forever. In this circumstance, I realize now that it might be best to give my brain the benefit of the doubt henceforth.

One of the debates raging among feminists is the concept of trigger warnings. Skeptics feel that these experiences are more hysteria, more psychosomatic, more Salem Witch Trial than anything else. Others point to survivors of one form of trauma or another, intending to protect them from pain and discomfort whenever possible. I’ve always been wary of how quickly useful terminology can become a parody of itself, cheapening the altruism and intention that went into it in the first place. Yet I do try to be sympathetic when I read another stomach-churning first-person account of a rape and sexual assault.

This doesn’t mean that I ever thought that triggering and trigger warnings were patently false. On the subject of obscenity, Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously noted that, for him, he knew it when he saw it. Regarding the after-effects of trauma, I can now say that I, too, know it when I see (or experience) it. I can no longer deny what I am feeling, nor can I take for granted the length of time this episode may last.    

True empathy is difficult for each of us without direct experience. Until Saturday, I was certainly sympathetic towards those who were victims of rape and incest, but there were limits to my compassion. I wasn’t intending to overlook anyone’s private struggle, but I simply did not understand and did not know how to understand. There are genocidal wars currently raging in our world and many humanitarian crises, but beyond my computer and television screen, these are only abstractions. I am not there. I do not know them. And I won’t pretend that even the struggles of my life make me an expert activist. What I can do is to listen. We do too much talking in the First World and not enough introspection.

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“‘though seeing, they may not see;
    though hearing, they may not understand.’
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then evil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

I include this parable for the benefits of activists of every treasured cause. Some of us will hear us. In the best case scenario, we will produce a hefty crop enough to feed a thousand people. Others may have good intentions at first, but their roots and commitment are not deep enough to sustain their initial devotion, so they wither and die. When times become painful or rough, they will not remain. Still another group will sprout and grow, but they’ll find worldly pleasures like money and immorality more compelling and rewarding.

Until Saturday, though seeing, I did not see. Though hearing, I did not understand. I nodded my head up and down in cadence, intending the best, but somewhat blind. I will not pretend to be smart enough to undo the ways of people, though I pray that my words be amplified by the Holy Spirit. I am a healer by nature. I am a fixer. For those who count themselves as the same, read these words if they give you comfort. Some will hear your message and some will not, but for their own reasons, not yours. It had to be their idea first, even if it really was yours. Being an activist requires humility as much as it requires initiative.