Monday, November 24, 2014

New Thanksgiving Experience

I saw the two of them seated together, next to each other. One of them was an old acquaintance of mine, a woman I’d nearly dated years before, though we retained our friendship. In medical school, she had practiced self-denial for years, before succumbing to the understandable need for a relationship. They sat across the room from me, next to each other at a close enough distance that seemed to signify they were in a relationship. I didn’t want to make assumptions, but of course one always does.

At nineteen, I’d decided to seduce an older man. I knew by his mannerisms he was unmistakably gay. I’d guessed wrongly once before with a guy in writing workshop, which was incredibly awkward for him and me. Fortunately he brushed me off with proficiency and didn't threaten physical violence.

As our time together progressed, my new boyfriend guided me through the unfamiliar, instantly offering to hold my hand through the process. Fellow LGBTs have offered their wisdom and validation to me numerous times since then, and it is for their hard work that I am not a bundle of unresolved neuroses by now. This same unguarded sweetness I have found everywhere is most appealing. But as for my own relationship, I begged my partner not to leave, but the age difference was always an issue for him, though it was never an issue for me.

She was clearly drawn to the masculine, as her girlfriend was decided more so than her. But regardless of how they presented, what they displayed to the outside were the nerves common to those starting out. This was my friend’s first same-sex relationship and I could tell she was still finding her footing. Her partner had only recently gotten a butch haircut, signifying to those in the know that she was interested in women. Her girlfriend kept her hair the same style and length as I remembered. In the beginning, finding balance can be challenging, and knowing the proper amount of makeup or not make up, dressing or not dressing, and haircuts and not haircuts must be discerned only by the self.

The two were too young to be jaded about relationships, which was a disarming thing to observe. One might think that the femme, my friend, who had only dated men before was simply exploring her sexuality. I suppose this is true inasmuch as everyone queer focuses on self-observation due to the way that it sticks out from the norm. But this was not a mere dabbling in homosexual relationships. Teenage acne had barely subsided, true, and what was left were a couple with much to learn about themselves and each other. In time, one gets more of the hang of it.

This is the way relationships, regardless of sex or gender, really ought to be. In times past, finding a queer relationship partner came after a lengthy period of soul-searching, usually with a healthy dollop of angst on the side. Every relationship, gay or straight, feels like a personal invention, a living organism that exists between two people. The patterns by which heterosexual relationships progress have been refined for thousands of years, and homosexual pairings take on some of those same elements while creating something new, unique only to them.

But in any case, I wished my friend well. I didn’t feel particularly jealous, only a little surprised. I asked her if she identified as a lesbian and she gave a flummoxed look. She could only describe herself as queer and seemed extremely conflicted about even that adjective. I relate, but I suppose I mostly wished she’d felt comfortable with me earlier to tell me. More than many men, I would have understood and tried to help her.

For those making familiar Thanksgiving drives in the next few days with unfamiliar company, I wish you peace, joy, and comfort. Regardless of outcome, you are loved by God and loved by the most important person in your life. Parents will be adjusting themselves as you are adjusting yourself, but they've had fewer years to process it than you have. No one ever forgets the first Thanksgiving with a significant other's family.

Belated Quote of the Week

"To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven."-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thanksgiving Break Armistice

I will be with family for a week, so posting here will be sparse until next week. I hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving and have the ability to spend time with your loved ones.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday Video

Takin' my time
Choosin' my lines
Tryin' to decide what to do
Looks like my stop
Don't want to get off
Got myself hung up on you

Seems to me
You don't want to talk about it
Seems to me
You just turn your pretty head and walk away

Places I've known
Things that I'm growin'
Don't taste the same without you
I got my self in
The worst mess I've been
And I find myself starvin' without you

Seems to me
Talk all night here comes the mornin'
Seems to me
You just forget what we said and greet the day

I've got to cool myself down
Stompin' around
Thinkin' some words I can't name ya
Meet you half way
Got nothing to say
Still I don't suppose I can blame ya

Seems to me
You don't want to talk about it
Seems to me
You just turn your pretty head and walk away

Friday, November 21, 2014

Thanksgiving Cheer

I originally wrote this post as an open letter to my Meeting, Friends Meeting of Washington, DC. In it, I reflect upon the romantic notion of a perfect Thanksgiving and the way it often turns out instead. __________

Dear Friends,

Thanksgiving means warm thoughts of togetherness and familial bliss to many of us. Yet, for some of us, it is a perpetually colossal and consistent letdown, full of needless drama and hostility. I can say with honesty that both the rosy and the sour versions are the case for me. My nuclear family and I, comprised of my two sisters and both parents, come together once a year to share a meal and each other's company. Genuine warmth exists between each of us and we have a lively conversation around the dinner table.

Should I speak about my mother's dysfunctional family, my feelings turn a full 180 degrees. Thanksgiving dinner with two warring uncles, both alcoholics, turns dinner conversation into a verbal feud unlikely to ever resolve itself. Even as a small child, I sensed first a silent tension that usually erupted quickly into caustic commentary between those seated once the first wine bottle was uncorked.

My uncles have mental illnesses they never treat. Instead, they self-medicate with alcohol. Products of the hyper-masculine decade of the 1950's, they believe that seeking help, even for a significant problem, is indicative of weakness and personal failing.

On a positive note, Thanksgiving means something else very important to me. It signifies six years in your company. November of 2008 was the first time I visited Friends Meeting of Washington. Two years before that, I encountered a Quaker meeting for the first time, and fell in love with our faith so completely that I formally joined a mere four months after my first visit. I have never regretted my decision.

You have become my family and my faith community. I have become emotionally invested in each of you. I sense Divine purpose in my work within FMW and have never once believed that this wasn't the right place for me. God wants me here and I have learned not to deviate from his plan for my life. I may not know all the answers, but I know enough to satisfy me.

While on the subject of mental illness, I've meant to share a particular phobia of mine for a while. When considering the shortcomings and mental health issues of my relatives, I am reminded of my own. I could have only told my worries to specialized committees like Personal Aid or Healing and Reconciliation, but, for my own sake, I want instead to share my fears in a public forum like this.

The worry that keeps me up at night is that I, a manic depressive, might enter a manic episode while in your company. Should that happen, I would hope that you could separate who I am from my illness. Sometimes I know that it isn't easy. But neither is it easy to see that of God in everyone.

Depression, I have learned the hard way, isolates one from the rest of the world and provides problems mostly for oneself. Mania quickly become a serious issue for everyone. Should my behavior become erratic, I hope you will correctly know its source and respond accordingly. I don't expect to have one, but I can never say with certainty that I won't.

I haven't had a manic episode since six months before I moved here. I spent three weeks in the hospital recovering, and when I was discharged, I had some wounded pride to take care of after I returned to health. It was a transformative event for me. I felt I had burned so many bridges where I lived at the time that I needed to radically reshuffle my life and my priorities. This is what led me to take a job in DC and to settle here for good.

If George Fox, our founder, suffered from the same medical condition as me, I delight that the both of us eventually found reason to be cheerful and to set our wanderings aside. And in the meantime, I hope we will find ways to bring joy and cheer to the lives of other people, seeing them as they are, underneath the bluster, broken.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Candy Says

Candy says I've come to hate my body
And all that it requires in this world
Candy says I'd like to know completely
What others so discretely talk about

I'm gonna watch the blue birds fly over my shoulder
I'm gonna watch them pass me by
Maybe when I'm older
What do you think I'd see
If I could walk away from me?

Candy says I hate the quiet places
That cause the smallest taste of what will be
Candy says I hate the big decisions
That cause endless revisions in my mind

I'm gonna watch the blue birds fly over my shoulder
I'm gonna watch them pass me by
Maybe when I'm older
What do you think I'd see
If I could walk away from me?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Makes a Male Feminist?

Around a week ago, the writer Alexis Scargill wrote a column entitled “Kindness and Generosity: Insidious Male Entitlement and the Mask of Male Feminism." Scargill's post set its sights squarely on male feminists or male allies, or rather those who proport to be feminist for their own selfish reasons.

This is a particularly sensitive topic for me. It took me years to win trust with particular feminist activists and fellow writers. At first, they assumed the worst about my motives while I only wanted to learn more. I wasn't pandering for sympathy, but that's often how I was perceived with every intellectual breakthrough I made. It would have been nice every now and again to find a man or woman (or even a group of men and women) willing to be mentors to me. That is what is needed to keep men properly up-to-date and hold themselves accountable.

Though this borders on a very different topic, as I've said, I think that male allies and/or male feminists need to band together to refine their views and help each other through what can be an intimidating atmosphere of terminology and hyper-charged political debate. Otherwise, only the most tenacious and motivated men will bother to remain.

My viewpoints in the beginning were those that any novice might make take. One has to know that 2 + 2 = 4 before one can learn how to multiply. I'll concede that I made my mistakes, but from the outset, by some, the bar was placed particularly high for me. Among some, I was expected instantly to be an quasi-expert. A quick study, it didn't take me very long not just to echo the arguments I saw in front of me, but to add my own views in ways that furthered the greater dialogue.

Men who claim to be feminist or male allies for manipulative ends are a minority, but I don't doubt they do exist. Many men who are turned off by the movement believe that it threatens nothing less than castration on their part and a complete loss of power. But to a particular group of supposedly enlightened men, no pose is off limits if it leads to sex. This reminds me of certain men who claim to be gay in order to win trust from women more easily, only to reveal the truth months later.

Scargill writes,

“I would never date a guy who wasn’t a feminist.” This is something I’ve said in response to a hundred debates in academia, at various jobs, among friends, at family gatherings. It is something I’ve stood by since I was a teenager. But what I really meant was, “I would never date a guy who didn’t self-identify as a feminist.” Because most often, they were not actually feminists in practice, regardless of how they believed to identify and regardless of how enthusiastically they nod in agreement to my feminist declarations.
At 21, I no longer believe a man can take the title of feminist. Feminist ally is the most he could hope to be. Feminist men need to understand first and foremost that the best way to be an ally and support feminism is to support women, not speak for them. Practice good feminism but don’t speak over women. Listen to their experiences and perspectives and learn something every day to be a better ally, because you will never have the lived experience of a woman. 

I will never completely understand what it is like to be a woman. I was not socialized as one and though as a male feminist I will constantly seek to understand, I recognize that I will always come up short. I use this as an exercise in humility and seek to listen more than to talk. At the same time, though I have purged most of this away, something most male feminists often find themselves needing to do, there are residual traces remaining of old hurts. My father has always felt threatened by feminism in any form and those political opinions formed me, even though I came to reject them in later life.

Among affluent liberals, who are a minority group in this country, it is much more likely to come across men who assert themselves in this way. Most American men would never take on the identity of feminist in the first place. This was the attitude present for me while I was growing up in the Deep South where rugged masculinity was still the law of the land. But I think this is true for most men, regardless of region.

Scargill uses several personal examples to explain her argument.

Within the past two weeks, I have had two more experiences with this betrayal by self-identified male feminists with two men who are close friends to me. To everyone around them, they are feminists, outspoken about their politics, critical of outspoken misogynist men, defensive of women. And that’s what frightens me. They seem cool and trustworthy, but in private, they ultimately weren’t. I don’t want to say these men are horrible people- I really do think they believe in these feminist ideals. 
But they don’t practice the same standards they hold men to, and I’m not sure they are even aware of it. If that’s the case- and I hope it is- that self-identified feminist men who fail to respect a woman’s body autonomy by making her feel unsafe or uncomfortable simply don’t realize what they are doing, simply don’t “know better,” they need to know now. They have no more excuses. They need to know better.

And I agree, but I don't think that the behavior of some automatically disqualifies all men from self-identifying as feminist. What the author has experienced is unacceptable behavior, but rather than making a blanket statement that men can't be feminists, I'd rather we continue to work on strategies which insist that men respect boundaries. Scargill backs up from her analysis to state that she doesn't think fake feminist men aren't horrible people, just hypocrites. I understand that she doesn't want to come across too harshly, but if men can't be feminists, how can they hold other men to proper standards of conduct around women?

Male feminist and male ally have been used interchangeably at times. It seems to depend entirely upon the audience. Some think that men can never be feminists. Some think that all men should be feminists. Some define male ally in one way and others define male feminists in a very different one. Some men don't feel they have any right to call themselves a feminist. Some, like me, wear it like a badge of honor. But regardless of definition, we ought to be discussing a code of conduct more than we are defining a litmus test of who's in and who's out.

I respect Scargill's perspective, but I respectfully disagree with her. Being a male ally feels like I'm sitting on the sidelines, consigned to a secondary role. I consider myself a male feminist because I want to be an active participant. My mouth may stay closed longer than it is open, but having processed what I've just experienced, I have the right to open it from time to time and add to the discussion.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Loner

He's a perfect stranger,
Like a cross
of himself and a fox.

He's a feeling arranger
And a changer
of the ways he talks.

He's the unforeseen danger
The keeper of
the key to the locks.

Know when you see him,
Nothing can free him.
Step aside, open wide,
It's the loner.

If you see him in the subway,
He'll be down
at the end of the car.

Watching you move
Until he knows
he knows who you are.

When you get off
at your station alone,
He'll know that you are.

Know when you see him,
Nothing can free him.
Step aside, open wide,
It's the loner.

There was a woman he knew
About a year or so ago.

She had something
that he needed

And he pleaded
with her not to go.

On the day that she left,
He died,
but it did not show.

Know when you see him,
Nothing can free him.
Step aside, open wide,
It's the loner.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Political Failure is not the End of the World

Ever since the Midterm elections ended, badly, liberals have been looking everywhere for answers. They feel betrayed by the Democratic Party and disappointed by President Obama. Every election cycle that goes against its wishes begins the inevitable finger-pointing and army of apologetics and revisionist historians. One wave of thought and theory begins and another sweeps it away.

A study of history shows that pendulum swings are inevitable. One single party has dominated for a time, but not forever. FDR won four terms and Harry Truman won one of his own, but that only led to two terms of Eisenhower. But Eisenhower could only produce four years of Republican rule in Congress. A generation before, two terms of crusading reforms by Democrat Woodrow Wilson gave way to a Republican return to normalcy.

Americans have always felt, eventually, disillusioned with the party in power. If they had not, one party would have eventually asserted dominance, as is the case with countries not wealthy enough or advanced enough to be considered part of the First World. As some may recall, our founders were idealistic enough to believe that two competing parties would simply not emerge.

Americans have a love/hate relationship with idealism in politics, finding it easy to fall in love with the newest idea or theory and the newest messenger. The opposite side of the coin of idealism is cynicism. Americans are guarded romantics at heart. If we were true cynics or fatalists, we would assume that politics is little more than a lost cause and refuse to cast a single ballot.

We get burned by the Washington insider, so we choose a Washington outsider this time. If he or she disappoints, we believe a Beltway politician is the the most sensible choice. The older we grow, the more we see the same patterns reassert themselves. This is to say that the worries of leftists are temporary. If we ever gravitate to one-party rule, then we have every reason to be genuinely worried. I don't see that happening.

Adversity reminds us that life is short, teaches us to live wisely, and refines our character. Christianity and Judaism see value in suffering in suffering and sorrow. Eastern religions seek to escape it, the Greeks and Romans absolutely despised it, but the Christian and Jewish traditions see tough times as a refining fire. We learn more about ourselves from difficult times than from happy times and now is time to re-school and retool who we are and what we believe.

Democrats may need to sojourn a while in the wilderness by doing what every party must do to remain relevant, reinventing itself. Rest assured, a new leader will win favor and a new kid in Washington will rise to power. Our political system does not preach a belief in escaping pain. Washington is not exactly the place for Zen-like stoicism and self-sacrificial behavior. Nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be so, no matter how many millions and billions of dollars enter the picture.

Legitimate worries exist. Reproductive rights and abortion rights are under attack in many conservative states, but the latest poll showed that a clear majority of Americans still believe that Roe v. Wade should continue to be the law of the land. Many PACs, non-profits, and NGOs have a concerted interest and motive in spinning out the worst case scenario. That what keeps them funded and in business.

Political parties and those allied with them do the same. When I first moved to Washington, I worked an internship at a 527. It was partially my responsibility to take survey data from donors and manually enter it into a spreadsheet. Every donor large and small was mailed a series of questions, along with an opportunity to donate money. We received no dearth of opinions. The form had, frankly, exaggerated the severity of our financial need.

Had the survey been worded in a Buddhist format, immaculately crafted open-ended questions begging for serenity and peace of mind would have been found instead. The problem with this approach is that it would not have increased our donations. An impending snowstorm produces a phenomenon known as panic buying. Over time, people have realized that the same effect is true if you scare people enough to open their wallets.

I firmly believe that at least half of the political organizations in Washington were designed to make themselves redundant, but have decided to set up shop forever instead. That is my answer as to why Washington is broken. Value in suffering exists, but we must first be receptive to hard truths and tough love. We are an experiment in democracy and our own death has been predicted a million times. Let's refrain from sounding the same tired refrain once more.

As it is written, which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to your span of life? Forgive me for saying this, but these are not transformational times. Instead, ours is a brittle, cynical, confusing epoch. This is not the first occurrence and it will not be the last. When it is our turn again, we must hold fast to our successes, knowing we must make the most of the time we have. This is true for life and it is true for politics.