Queering Thanksgiving

Holidays have always been a sort of mystery to me. It’s hard to understand what the point of returning to your natal home is when you don’t get along with your family and you hate your hometown. It never made sense to me to spend the few days I had to myself, away from the day-to-day grind of school or work or what have you with people where there is more bad blood than good. A visit home is exhausting.

People from less than ideal families and queer people – and let’s be clear here that these two categories are anything but mutually exclusive – seek each other out. Sometimes this phenomenon is deliberate, and sometimes it isn’t, but in my experience it’s generally pretty useful. It can be hard to explain that dread when Christmas rolls around and you know you have to drag yourself back. It’s a simple comfort to have someone in the same boat read your expression and just get it.

What I’m saying is that when your natal family is not supportive, is not safe, that many of us build a family that provides us with these things from the ground up. I am lucky enough that for years I have been able to celebrate Thanksgiving with my created family. This year, I had my partners Jon and Hunter here with me, a dear friend Van, and the kiddo. These are people with whom I can be totally, unapologetically myself: genderqueer, sexually fluid, poly, brash, foul-mouthed, an enthusiastic eater. They call me B instead of my given name without having to be asked to do it. Reconnecting with them, soaking up the easiness of our relationships to each other, that is what I need from a holiday.

This is exactly the kind of holiday atmosphere I want my kid to have growing up. I want to model an expectation that you get to choose who you share your life with. I want her to know she’s not obligated to spend her days with me if it means she needs a week to prepare to see me and two weeks after to recover. I want her to know she’s not obligated to be with anyone she does not choose to be with, and that she’s allowed to set high expectations for those people.

10 Years With Jon

Today is my tenth anniversary with my partner, Jon. Ten years is a long time no matter how you cut it, but for us it’s a lifetime. We got together the fall semester of our freshman year in college, which is to say that we have been together our entire adult lives.

It’s inevitable that when you’re with someone for years and years that they will rub off on you. But, being with someone for years and years starting in late adolescence and early adulthood – that tumultuous time where you’re still figuring out who you are and who you want to be – means the bleed over is especially pronounced. There is no question that I am who I am today in large part because I’ve been with Jon since I was eighteen.

Jon has made me a better person. There is no questioning that. I was a wounded mess when we first got together, and I was, in fact, so thoroughly wounded that I refused to admit I had, perhaps, not emerged from an abusive home life unscathed. I was all rough edges, all sharp, jutting angles, and the years with Jon have smoothed them away. He is safe, and he is stable, and there is so much trust that the wounds have healed and the rough edges have been worn down. He taught me patience, he taught me perspective, and compassion, and he taught me the limits of what is acceptable and what is not. And for all of that I am immensely grateful.

I love him. I always have, and I always will. There’s no question of that. Jon is the foundation of my life, but he wouldn’t have become that if he wasn’t hilariously funny, and tremendously sweet, and odd as hell, and smart as a whip. We are very different people, he and I, but we have within us a deep compatibility that only ever grows stronger. He is lazy, and frustrating, and touchy, but he is really, truly, the best. My favorite.

Ten years together is a long time, but we have decades to go. We have years and years ahead of us. We get to raise our kid together, we get to see each other and laugh and watch awful TV together every day. You know things are good when the idea of forty, fifty, sixty years more with someone feels like freedom.

This poem by Frank O’Hara sums up my feelings nicely:

 HAVING A COKE WITH YOU

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it

NaBloPoMo: Short little pat on the back post today

Since moving to Colorado five months ago, I have written just over 100,000 words. I know this because I have a somewhat elaborate spreadsheet in which I track my writing. What those 100,000 words have managed to do is finish the first draft of Iiva – no small feat – and get about a third of the way into the second draft of Ariah.

Good on me.

NaBloPoMo: “Warning: Kind of Extemporizing Here”

Writing a blog post every day is hard. I knew it would be. Just now, I was sitting here, laptop open, a blank page mocking me, so I asked my partner*, Jon, what I should write about. He threw out some topics.

“But I don’t really know anything about that.”

“Well, whatever. Just, like, put a warning up on your blog. Warning: Kind of extemporizing here.”

And as soon as he said it, it came to me that extemporizing is all I really do. I don’t feel like I know that much about any one thing. I know a little about lots of stuff, sure, but as I get older I’m beginning to think that life is less about collecting knowledge and more about the efforts we go through to get it. The learning, the application of it once we have it.

All my writing really is just me extemporizing. I’ve touched on this before, that speculative fictions draws me because I like the sandbox quality it has. I like the room to maneuver, to ask questions, to play what if. What if gender was constructed this way? What would it look like, what would it feel like? Let’s extemporize narrative style! Where would X come from? How does Y work? Let’s make some educated guesses!

I worked as a researcher, and that’s basically just a long involved process of extemporizing, too. Let’s run an experiment! Let’s build a survey! Which is to say, let’s try and find out! That particular breed of intellectual curiosity has certainly informed the way I write and what I write about.

 

*Jon’s not my only romantic partner, by the by. I’m sure you’ll meet Hunter in a later post. And I also have another partnerly co-parent, Sam, who lives with me and Jon and the kiddo.

NaBloPoMo: Writing and parenting and self-care

I have a 20 month old kid who is bursting with life and inarticulate personality. There is truly nothing better than this kid of mine. The human race should really just throw in the towel, because we’ve peaked, and the peak is my kid.

My kid is a toddler, and that means it’s harder to get things done than it was before. It’s definitely harder to write. Zadie loves a computer, and especially loves to smash them with  sticky baby fingers. This really sucked for a long time, and then I thought about it, and maybe it doesn’t suck quite as much as I thought.

My writing is more deliberate now, precisely because I have to work around the demands of this child who has no concept of writing and really only knows that when I’m doing it that means I’m not paying attention to her, which is a crime. There’s less dicking around now when I sit down to write. I no longer have hours and hours to wallow in. Writing from midnight to 2am is no longer an option. Things have streamlined.

The times I get to write at home – almost invariably while she’s napping – underscore how much I like writing and how (typically) restorative it is for me. It emphasizes that I write for me, not really for an audience, and that reminder is welcome because I have a tendency to psych myself out when I think about trying to find an audience, trying to publish, how I measure up, etc. And those are important things to think about, but not to a point where they actually overwhelm my ability to get the writing done in the first place. I love my kid more than anything, but parenting a toddler is hard work. It’s exhausting mentally, emotionally, physically, you name it. And it makes me remember that for me writing is a form of necessary self-care.

NaBloPoMo: ARIAH Rewrites Update

As I’ve mentioned, I’m rewriting a book the first draft of which I dearly love. I am past, now, the disjointed opening sequence, and I had thought – clearly with hubris – that little rewriting would be needed in the rest of the book. But this first draft, which I still dearly love, is just getting razed to the ground. It’s surprising to me, but it feels right to do it, and it’s extremely fun to write it, so I’m going with it.

There’s an interesting thing happening in these rewrites where many of the pieces I wrote that were supposed to be the Big Reveals are now treated quite differently. I think it’s more naturalistic. I think it flows better. Characters have receded into the background, and others have come more sharply into focus. Certainly, there’s been a lot of general streamlining of the story, a better focus which allows for foreshadowing and cleaner development throughout, but I always forget how impressively creative the second draft is. I tend to think of the bulk of the creative heavy lifting gets done in the first draft, but it’s not really true.

I am pretty pleased with how the rewrites are going, but I can’t say I could have predicted how this book would rewrite itself. It has a different structure now, and it has a different tension running through it. It is less wide-eyed, less innocent, and more…grown? I feel like the book itself has matured. I know that really means I have matured – as a person, as a writer, as both – but it honestly feels much more like I’ve visited an old friend, and they’re still the same person, but a better, more grown-up version than who I last visited.

I guess what I’m saying is so far so good on these rewrites. I feel like I’m doing comparatively little of the work, like really it’s rewriting itself and I’m more or less just company. That’s a good sign: when I feel like that, it means things are clicking into place.

NaBloPoMo: Leadership Story

I’m currently part of the Education Pioneers Analyst Fellowship, and this week I’ve been at a convening of the fellows. I was asked to develop and present my leadership story, which is a fancy way of saying I had to tell people what about my life pushed me to go into education. Here it is:

I’m going to tell you three little stories first.

I was in band from the 6th grade through the end of high school. I played French horn, and I was actually pretty good at it. When I was in the 8th grade, I tried out for district and got through. I tried out for regionals and got through. I tried out for state and made it. It was kind of a big deal. The concert for the state level band was out of town. My mom drove me to it and was supposed to stay there and watch, but she left partway through. She was just not there. I can’t really say I was surprised, but I’ll get to that later. The upshot was that I waited, my heart slowly sinking, growing more numb than anything else, as the other kids left with their parents. My band director was there, and he realized without having to be told that she wasn’t coming, and he drove me two hours home.

Ok, here’s the second one. I wish I could say that I applied myself in high school, but the truth is I didn’t. I was smart enough that I could skate by. I was chronically absent – like, missed two or three days of school a week on the regular levels of absent – and I still graduated third in my class. Anyway, the absences stacked up, and there were some times where both me and my kid sister had unexcused absences on the same day. One of the days I did actually manage to get to school and stay there longer than a period or two, my government teacher stopped me in the hallway. “Hey, is everything ok?” I told him it was, and I felt like it was at the time, but the truth was it wasn’t. “Are you sure? Because you’ve missed a lot and when the office tried to call your house the line was down.” My parents hadn’t paid the phone bill. “If it happens again, they’ll call social services,” he said.

Fast forward to college. There was a Christmas where I was not welcome at home and I didn’t really want to go there anyway, so my plan was just to stay on campus. It was well in to winter break and I think I was returning some videos to the public library or something. Anyway, I went to college at Oberlin, which is a tiny little town in Ohio which ends up totally empty when the students clear out on breaks. It wasn’t that surprising when I ran into one of my professors at the library. I’d taken four classes with him, and he knew me pretty well, and he asked me why I was still in town. “Family stuff,” I told him. And he just knew, somehow, without having to be told. He had me come to his house, with his family, for Christmas dinner. I ate really good turkey there and played with his granddaughter. It was the best Christmas I’ve had before or since.

Through the course of this convening, we’ve heard over and over again how education is a people business, and that’s what I want you to take away from me. It is a people business, and the people are children, who sometimes are drifting along and helpless. As you’ve probably gleaned from these stories, my family life was not great. I was dealing with some real Tennessee Williams shit – rampant alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, neglect. I won’t get into the specifics. I have a kid sister, and my childhood was mostly centered around taking the brunt of it so she didn’t have to. I grew up poor, and I grew up visibly, noticeably queer in Texas, and I might as well be honest I grew up struggling with my gender in a family that was not comfortable with that at all. What I’m saying is I was a total mess as a kid and a teenager. I acted out, got in fights. But the thing is, I was smart, and I knew college was a way out. And I was lucky enough to have teachers who pushed me back on track when I started to drift too far. Teachers helped me fill out college apps and write entrance essays, not my parents. They helped me score scholarships.

So I got to college, and I loved it. I really blossomed there, because it was safe. There’s a common thing with people who grow up in abusive families where they don’ remember that much about their childhoods. It’s like that for me. Memories of home are fractured. It’s weird. But I remember a lot about school pretty clearly, because school was stable and safe. College was even better because it was stable and safe all the time. I was lucky enough to really bond with some of my professors, and it was the absolute best thing for me. I could not be more grateful. They were a support network for me, and I needed it, because even though I was states away my crappy home life still haunted me. My dad got cancer, and fought it, and died, and though we had a complicated relationship to say the least, we were close and it was hard on me. And then the shit really hit the fan, because my mom just lost it. There were suicide attempts, and then she started telling my sister they should both kill themselves, and I had to move my sister into my dorm room.

My sister moved back home after a few months even though I didn’t want her to, and she dropped out of high school. I felt powerless, and some of my professors could tell and reached out to me. I was estranged from my mom by then and they helped me figure out how to get financial aid to work around some stuff and they did a lot of talking with me about what to do after college. I decided with a lot of encouragement to go to grad school.

I did really well in grad school, but academia is not really my scene. I need more on the ground, meaningful impact stuff than you get with psych research. So I started community organizing, much of which was about education, which fed into working with teachers in Detroit. And then I got pregnant, and I started thinking about what being a professor is like and how meaningless academic work felt to me, and how I wanted to really model social change for my kid. And I thought about how transformative education had been for me, but how I’ve been one of the lucky ones, and how my own sister is not one of the lucky ones. So I bailed on academia and went into organizing full time.

Working with teachers is really powerful stuff, and meaningful, but being a full time organizer means you can only talk about certain things to certain people in certain ways. I found it very limiting. And I wanted to be more directly involved with the education system, doing something that had a more direct line of advocacy for kids like me. I found the ed pioneers listing on idealist and was like “holy shit, this is perfect. This is just perfect.”

And here I am. And I’ve landed in this job where I get to think and talk about race and class in education all the time, where there’s tons of data to work with. It feels really hopeful. For the first time in a long time I feel really hopeful.

NaBloPoMo: There Are Some Things I Just Won’t Write

Generally, I let the writing flow. I am, in basically every other aspect of my life, a planner. Very detail oriented. One of my partners (Partner H) called me an order muppet of the highest degree, and she is very much correct. I will have you know that this comes in extremely handy in my day job as a data analyst. It is also useful in managing family google calendars.

But writing is a release from that. It just…works. I try not to over think it. But I’m not writing in a vacuum, and it is me doing the writing, and that means I write within certain parameters. There are some things I just cannot write.

Ok, if you haven’t read Cloud Atlas and you’re planning to, skip the rest of this post as it will contain spoilers. CLOUD ATLAS SPOILERS, I SAY! 

Continue below the cut if you don’t mind being spoiled/have already read it.

Continue reading

NaBloPoMo: Unexplained Phenomena

I am, by training and disposition, a researcher. I am drawn to fantasy because it is a essentially a series of what-ifs. Fantasy is a potent marriage of storytelling and thought experimentation.

When I first began building the world of Aerdh, I started with two fundamental constraints:

  1. There was no after life.* Nothing is supernatural.
  2. Magic can exist but only if I understand how it works. It can’t function as a convenient black box which births heavy handed symbolism and contrived plot devices.

Basically, I am a curious reductionist in my approach to the world, and it came out in my worldbuilding. And then, I started writing.

Way back at the start, I thought being a good writer meant you knew everything about every last corner of your world. Now, I don’t think so. There are times a mystery has come up in my books – something as small as how a relationship formed, and something as large as the nature of a whole race of people. And there are times it feels wrong to interrogate the mystery. I don’t always understand things in life. Some things just are. There are phenomena for which we may never know the explanation, even though an explanation surely exists.

I wonder how common an experience this is. Do other writers dig deep and try to answer those questions, do the let the mysteries sit? Should I dig deep, or should I trust this instinct? I can’t help but trust it. I can’t help but think that if the mystery needs solving that a story which solves it will develop organically, without my prodding. And I’d rather solve it in a story than in a vacuum.

I like the mysteries. I like not knowing everything, not being able to predict everything. It makes me feel less like a god and more like a participant in the writing. The mysteries keep me interested.

 

*This is a rule I have flirted with breaking at least once.

NaBloPoMo: I am a socialist, and I voted for Obama.

Image

I saw this spray painted on the sidewalk yesterday morning as I walked to work. It is painted in front of a church, which today served as a polling place. Usually in the mornings the homeless take cover on the steps of the church, and the planters around the trees on the sidewalk next to it play host to grocery carts full of blankets and meager possessions. This morning, the homeless were missing. Well-dressed youngish professionals milled around the tree instead, all of them sporting I voted! stickers with tangible pride.

I will paint you a picture of the person who left this graffiti there on that sidewalk, and I would wager this portrait would prove accurate if there was a way to hunt down the artist. This was done by someone young, probably around twenty-three. This was done by a man – a cisgender man who has never struggled with his gender identity but may vaguely know that some other people kind of do. This guy likely has at least a couple of years of college under his belt, even if maybe he didn’t finish, and he’s straight, but you know, totally not narrow. He’s young and unattached, no kids, parents probably in another state. He is able-bodied, and likely in decent mental health, all of that because he’s had consistent access to halfway decent healthcare which he likely takes for granted. And he is white. Lily-white. Snowblind white.

Look, I know this because I know this kid. I have crashed on this kid’s couch and fed him leftovers. This kid is an anarchist or a socialist or both or neither. In any case, this kid believes himself to be the vanguard of the impending revolution. And maybe he is. But my point is this kid is white, and has a safety net, and he has the free time to go painting political manifestos on the sidewalk where homeless folks are trying to get through the night.

What I’m saying, and I say this from a place of personal experience, is that this kind of disdaining lefter-than-thou tagging comes from a place of deep and unchecked privilege. Because in this election the only kind of person who would think that the outcome of Romney being elected and the outcome of Obama being reelected would be the same shit is someone who doesn’t stand to lose all that much one way or another.

If Romney is elected, it will not be the same shit for people of color, or those trapped in poverty, or people who need reproductive choices, or queer folks, of gender variant folks. Shit will be dire. Shit will get deadly.

So full disclosure: I’m totally a socialist. I’m so deep in this that my kid has two middle names, and one of them is Marx, I shit you not. It’s on the kid’s birth certificate and everything. And I have spent a lot of time heavily involved in leftist and ultra-leftist politics in this country. I’m now old enough to have lived through three presidential elections: in the first, under the twin pressures of the party line and youthful indignation, I voted for Ralph Nader even though I have always kind of hated him. In the second, caught in a woefully self-absorbed navel-gazing crisis of conscience, I couldn’t bring myself to vote at all. Within my Marxist group, I’d spoken out against endorsing Nader again. I likened him to a vampire come to leech the nascent thrummings of revolutionary consciousness from the masses every four years like clockwork, a characterization I still stand by, but I was overruled. It left me frozen and indecisive.

Four years is a lot of time to grow. This time around I voted for Obama, though put more accurately, I voted against Romney. In the last four years, I’ve broken from the organization in which I once held a national leadership position. I refocused my politics. The revolution will come, but it’s not coming tomorrow. The revolution will come, but not because a bunch of white kids in college somehow know better than the poor and the exploited. The revolution is coming, but in the meantime a lot of people are just trying to survive.

On the left, there is much discussion of the two-party system as a set of lesser evils, and this is true. That’s what this white anarchist dudebro was getting at here. But the thing is that there are no good candidates – it’s all a set of lesser lesser lesser evils nested like political matrushka dolls. Look, even if there were good candidates out there, I wouldn’t vote for them. Not now. Because this ‘protest vote’ mentality born out of lesser evilism arguments completely ignores two very pertinent facts:

1)      If you are able to cast a protest vote at all, you are in a position of massive privilege. You’re not being targeted by voter suppression. You have the means to get to a polling place. Your polling place is in a location where really shady shit is likely not going on.

2)      Obama and Romney are both drenched in capitalism, yes, but the evil that will be meted out by Romney is worse for a lot of people by a wide margin than the evil that will be meted out by Obama.

What I’m saying is that I don’t feel right casting a protest vote when I know for a fact that there are people of color who are trying to vote for Obama and are getting their votes stolen. What I’m saying is that if you really want to be the vanguard, you have got to have the humility to listen to the people you assume you’re going to lead. Maybe all these poor people of color aren’t brainwashed; maybe they have thought it through and think for truly valid reasons that their lives will be just that little bit easier to lead if Obama stays in office. And maybe my lily-white ass should listen and respect that if I want to live the anti-racist anti-classist values I spout off all the time.

Obama’s not a socialist. This election is, in so many ways, a farce. But I will be damned if I had anything to do with Romney getting elected.