Sunday, July 29, 2012

On Birthdays, Presents, and Presence

Tomorrow (Monday) is my thirty-ninth birthday.  I don't feel thirty-nine, but I don't know how thirty-nine is supposed to feel, so maybe I do feel it?

People ask me if I'm afraid of 40.  I'm not sure what it's supposed to do, so I'm not, but perhaps that will change in the next year.  I can never know.  So far, the thirties have been much better than the twenties, so the forties should be even more wonderful.

The other big question is "What do you want for your birthday?"  In my family, much is made of giving people things they will both use and enjoy.  My mother and sister usually give me new clothes, and my father gives me giftcards to places he knows I will use them.  Most of my friends give me weird things they thought of me when they saw.  All of this is much appreciated.  But none of it is required.

Now, Miss Manners has much to say on the subject of receiving gifts, asking for gifts, and telling people you do not require gifts.  And while I tend to agree that there's really no way to word "No gifts, please" in a way that does not sound like "I assume you want to buy me things," in our culture that assumption *is* the expectation.  Also?  I do really like to get presents.  I almost never fail to be delighted by the simple fact that someone thought of me and spent time or money to give me something they thought would make me happy.  My nephew colored me a card yesterday, and it made me unreasonably happy because it was just so nifty and unexpected.

But I'm never hurt or upset when I don't get a present from someone.  It just means that nothing leaped up and said, "Hey, she needs one of these!"  However, I've been told by several people that I should give better guidance than "Well, sure, if you want, then something nifty?"

The problem is that I so do not need stuff.  I need less stuff, not more stuff.  I have a one-bedroom apartment that is already full to bursting with stuff, and this year's project is to significantly reduce my stuff (I have already thrown out five gallons of unused bath products, for example).  So, there's a pretty small space in my world for physical things as gifts.  I have, instead, come up with a short list of things that would make good gifts.  Some of them are 'things for me' and some of them are 'things it would make me happy to have happen':

1.  Give me a moment of your life's beauty.  Tell me a story about when you were happy, show me a picture of someplace you went that fed your soul, talk to me about the things that you really love.

2.  Tell someone, not necessarily me, how much they mean to you.  If there's a person in your life that you rely on, that you trust absolutely, that you love more than you can possibly describe, then *try* to describe it, and give that description to them.  You don't have to tell me who, or what you said, but let me know you did it and that will make me smile.

3.  Do an anonymous kindness for someone who doesn't expect it.  Pay a restaurant tab, send someone a card with a note that says "I admire how kind you are," quietly slip a twenty in the tip jar at your favorite coffeehouse.  Again, you don't have to tell me who or what, just that you did something nice and made someone else smile.

4.  Surprise birthday coffee.  Sometime in the next year, but not actually on my birthday, call me up and say, "Surprise!  I would like to take you out for a long birthday coffee chat!"

5.  Create something for me.  Draw me a picture or tell me a story or write me a poem.  They don't have to be elaborate; a silly limerick about badgers or a picture you drew on the bus one day would delight me.

6.  Livestock.  Specifically, Heifer International.  You can get shares for as little as $10, and the idea that somewhere in the world exist "Badger's Birthday Bees" or a "Badger's Birthday Ducks" would please me greatly.

7.  If you really wish to get me a thing I can use, then a gift certificate for a deep apartment cleaning or one of those services that helps you organise your life would be greatly appreciated.  I'm making headway, but it's slooooow.  Friends have offered to help, but strangers would be easier for me to manage right now.

Now, this doesn't mean that if you saw the perfect t-shirt or book or whatever for me, and have been saving it for my birthday, I don't want it.  I'll be happy to make flaily squeeing noises and love it forever.  But our culture is such that "It's a birthday, I have to find a present" is pervasive even when no present is needed or required to communicate "I love you and am glad to have you in my life."

Every year I wrestle with how to say, "If you want to give me something for my birthday, give me a better, kinder, more loving world, where people take a little more time for each other, and where wonderful things happen to people who don't know they deserve them."

This, I think, is the best I can do.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On Batman, Mayhem, and Respecting the Living

In December of 2004, a man walked into the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio and opened fire.  He killed the lead singer of the band, and several others, before a police officer came in through a side door and fatally shot him.  He still had several dozen rounds on him when he died, and no reason to believe he would stop shooting.

Hundreds of miles away in Kansas the next morning, I awoke to the news, thinking of it as a passing tragedy, maybe considering the sad state of affairs in gun culture and offering a quick thought for the families.  I really don't remember.  Until I opened up my LiveJournal and saw the questions begin.

"Hey, wasn't that the band Mayhem worked for?"
"Wasn't Mayhem doing security for those guys?"
"The police are reporting a member of their security team was killed.  Does anyone know who it was?"

Then, over and over for hours:

"Has anyone talked to or heard from Mayhem today?"

No, no one had and no one would.  Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, head of security for the band Damageplan, had been shot trying to tackle the shooter while the band ran offstage to safety.  He had not survived.

Jeff was also a longtime performer at the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and had come many times to fight and play and perform at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival over the years I'd been part of that community.  I cannot claim I knew him well but I respected him immensely.  He had been kind to me at every meeting, and many of my close friends looked upon him as a friend and brother.  Our festival family was devastated.

Grief is a very private thing.  We all experience it in our own way, and usually we're allowed to deal with that loss on our own terms and at our own discretion.  But when the person you're grieving is part of a public tragedy, you're not allowed that space or that privacy, because everyone else wants to own a piece of your grief.

At first, this was deeply comforting.  We would see pictures of candles and flowers left for our friend, and think, "He's gone, but his passing and his life are being honored by thousands."  There is a comfort in seeing that people in other states, other countries, acknowledge and honor someone who mattered to you.

But then, as is the way of this nation, pain becomes pawn in a terrible game of political chess.  From every side it came, the assertions that 'someone in that club with a gun could have saved those lives' balanced by strident insistence that somehow a law could have been written to restrict gun ownership just enough to prevent it entirely.

For weeks I could not open a web browser without being assaulted by people using my community's very real pain as a justification for their personal politics.  When I tried to say, "That was my friend, please have a little respect for those who mourn him," I got, "Well, then, don't you wish more people had agreed with me so your friend wouldn't be dead?"

He wasn't a political symbol, and should not have become one.  He was the reason I carried one kind of no-chocolate cookies in my cookie basket every weekend of festival.  He was the man whose chest I ran full-tilt into, crying so badly I could not see, on a very bad day indeed.  He said nothing, just looked down, furrowed his brow, and enveloped me in a massive hug until the sobs subsided, then let me go on my way.  No words, just kindness and unconditional comfort.

He was a real person, beloved by many, many people who could not even grieve him privately without some talking head pontificating on an inescapable news channel about whose fault his death really was, the right-wing gun nuts or the left-wing gun control nuts.

His death was the fault of the man who pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger, the man who for whatever reason decided large-scale violence was the answer to his pain.  No one else, ultimately, is to blame.

Thursday night's tragedy brought a great deal of this back to me, and if I've been sharp with you in the intervening time understand that this is why.  People are dead.  Real people.  People who were loved and cared for, people who were central to their communities, people who left behind unspoken words and unfinished deeds.  And in their wake, families pray for loved ones to recover, for the death toll not to rise, for a child to walk again or a sister to breathe without the ventilator.  They do not care about your politics, but in the coming weeks, they will not be able to escape them.

It had not even been hours before people I had thought better of began to take sides, squaring off in smug justification of their personal politics.  "No one needs to own that gun."  "This is clear evidence it should be banned."  "If there had been someone there with a gun, they could have saved all those lives."  "This is the fault of Americans and their rabid gun culture.  Those people are savages."  "This is what happens when you disarm the innocent people and not the guilty ones."

If you see your own words here, it's because they cut me to the bone.

The shooter was a person.  His victims were people.  Their families, and his family, are people.  It becomes incredibly easy to lose sight, when we have an agenda bit between our teeth, of the fact that we may be speaking to someone struggling to hide a private grief, someone who would rather hear words of compassion and comfort than the ones we are speaking.

It takes only a second to snicker smugly and post that captioned picture on a Facebook.  It takes only a moment to cut and paste an advocacy status that turns someone else's desperate grief to our own service.  But it takes years for those hurt by those words and images to reconcile private grief and public behaviour.

So as you speak in the coming days, remember that you can't know who your words are reaching, and how badly they wound.  Remember that for many people this is not an abstract exercise in political theory.  Remember that your words have incredible power, that they can wound and they can heal, and choose wisely what you will do with them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On Being Happy

My parents separated when I was 13 and divorced not long after.  This is not exactly about that.

After the divorce, my mother fell into a deep depression, from which she emerged some two years later, walking into my room to announce, "You know what?  You can't depend on someone else to make you happy.  You have to make you happy.  I'm going to the Food Barn.  Do you want some ice cream?"

I thought, at the time, that I understood what she was saying, but I was still angry with my parents and the entire rest of the world.  It took me a good fifteen years to fully internalize that lesson, to grasp it for myself.  It took me just about that long to really forgive my father and my stepmother for what I saw as a brutal betrayal of my mother and our family.  That the transition to understanding was accompanied by life-changing pain of my own, as well as by the setting aside of my own anger and self-righteousness, is probably significant.

The key to happiness doesn't lie in a new love, a new job, a new house, a new city.  It doesn't have anything to do with the things you have in your life.  The path to happiness is internal.

There's a meme that goes around that says, "Are you happy?  No?  Then change something."  It's true, but most people seem to think that 'change something' is entirely external.  They assign their unhappiness to their jobs, or their relationships, where they're living.  Everything will be fine once they get the promotion, find that perfect girlfriend or boyfriend, or make that fresh start.

And you know, it is.  For the first little while when you make big changes, when you choose a new path, everything falls into place.  It all seems to be working, coming together.  There's a New Relationship Energy that goes with life changes major or minor.  It can prevent you from seeing that the things that made you unhappy before are still there.  Slowly, gradually, they creep back in and ruin everything again.

You're still going to have trouble at work if you resent authority, or if you're not doing a job you feel is worth your time.  Your relationships will continue to fail if you can't love yourself or see yourself as deserving of another person's love.  Leaving your faith for a new path won't bring you peace if you still carry the conflict inside you.  Whatever pain, or fear, or disappointment you're running from will keep chasing you until you stand and face it.  You will be no happier six states away, because the first thing you pack when you leave home is your emotional baggage.

So, is it all hopeless?

Not remotely.  But you have to be willing to face yourself in the mirror and give yourself the power and the responsibility for your own happiness.

If you want to be happy professionally, you must either find a way to do what you love, or learn to love what you do.  This may mean a new degree, or it may mean a new attitude.  It may mean an honest assessment of your skills and your abilities.  It can mean an acceptance that you will never be an astronaut or a professional wrestler, but that doesn't mean you can't find a career that lets you soar in your own way.

If you want to be happy in love, you have to begin by loving yourself and acknowledging that you have a fundamental right to be loved.  This doesn't mean the child's petulant demand for validation in another person as your 'right'; it means a real understanding of the full worth of the person you are, and a deep, genuine love of self that flows outwards from you to everyone you meet.  You don't 'deserve' love like a dog deserves a treat.  You deserve love like you deserve oxygen.

If you left your faith in resentment and anger, slamming a door on your beliefs as you abandoned them, you'll chafe just as much under new gods or no gods at all.  Faith or the leaving of it can be a path to happiness, but only if you're willing to own that the path itself wasn't inherently at fault, that choices you made that were at odds with (or even in line with) that path were at the root of your unhappiness on it.  You can't blame gods for failing to make you happy against your best efforts.

If you're running, you need to understand that your fear, your pain, your disappointment, your PAST carries the key to your happiness and you must stop, turn, and demand that key.  This can be the scariest one of all.  The parent who left, the bully who threatened, the abuse or the abandonment, they follow us for as long as we keep running.  This is also one of the most seductive paths to unhappiness:  If I can just get far enough away, bury myself deeply enough in a new life or another person, you think, then the past will lose my scent and leave me alone.  It doesn't; it always finds you, but the day you stand and face it, admit what's happened to you, forgive those who hurt you, and forgive yourself for being hurt, the past's power over you starts to weaken and you don't ever have to run again.

The striving towards happiness is a mindset.  It's a consistent path of conscious choices.  Every day, I get up and decide to keep being happy.  When I face a trial, I weigh my options based on which is most in keeping with my own path to happiness.  When depression strikes, the path that leads out of it is the path of trying to make every day just a little bit happier than the one before it, until I can find my way back to equanimity.

The other part of being happy is understanding that it's a state of being more than a state of mind.  I can be sad, be in a bad mood, feel frustrated with my life, and still be a happy person.  I try not to lose sight of the fact that my life is a good place, even when it's not exactly as I want it to be.  I am surrounded by loving people, I am trusted by people worthy of respect, and I have many opportunities to grow, to succeed, and to change the world around me.  And even on the very worst days, that's still a pretty happy place to be.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

In Which I Am the Only Person In America Who Did Not Know Anderson Cooper Was Gay

One of the biggest pieces of non-news to hit the Internet over the last several days is that CNN's Anderson Cooper has come out as gay.  It meets the description of non-news for two reasons:  first, that it doesn't seem to have surprised really anyone and second, that the sexual orientation of a news reporter should not, in itself, be news.

I understand why it is, even beyond the whole fascination we have with people's bedrooms.  Mr. Cooper is a successful public figure, who has demonstrated tremendous character and no small amount of courage in his professional career.  Not only has he been covering warzones, there was the much-publicized clip of him setting down his camera, in effect setting down his role as impartial journalist, to grab an injured child and carry him to safety.  He is admired by a lot of people for his tenacity and intellect.  I like to think that a gay child could look at him and see the potential for success and respect that has nothing to do with, but is not hampered by, homosexuality.  He has been a voice for equality, and now he can be an open role model.  And, of course, the more people come out and say, "Hey, I'm gay, deal with it," the closer we can get to this NOT being a big deal.  I am very, very glad he has spoken up, and done so with the words he used.

Many, many people have covered the "Someday I sure hope this stops being a big deal," angle, far better than I have, but the other half of it, the "Of course I knew that" half of it, is going generally unremarked.

All over my newsfeeds, my facebook, and my LJ, people are saying, "Well, he's been setting off my gaydar for years."  So, let me get this straight (no pun intended).  For years now, you've been making unfounded judgments about the sexuality of someone you've never met, just by looking at him on the television?  What was it?  Did he 'dress gay'?  'Talk gay'?  Was it some sort of hand movement or gestural thing?  A lisp, perhaps, that I never noticed?  No, seriously, tell me how you 'knew' a perfect stranger was gay, and why you were thinking about it in the first place.

Perhaps I am sensitive on this because I've never had functional gaydar.  I can't tell at all what another person's sexual preference is, and I've never been able to.  It used to bother me, in that "Other people know something I don't know and I feel like the butt of the joke for getting it last," sort of way.  It doesn't any more, because I came to understand that unless I actively want to sleep with someone, I don't actually care what his sexual preference is, on the personal level.

Do I care on the social and legal levels?  Absolutely.  My friends' sexuality matters to me if it's important to them, and because I want to know that they enjoy the same rights and privileges I do -- beyond that it's really just a matter of logistics and conversational pronouns as far as I'm concerned.  Because, you know, one of the privileges I enjoy as a straight person is that people do not feel entitled to make random judgments about my preference of partners based on some nebulous set of behaviours or appearance criteria they can't explain.  I'd sure like that one to be universal.

Perhaps I'm also sensitive about it because I've been on the receiving end of incorrect gaydar for most of my adult life.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been assumed to be a lesbian.  My usual response is "Oh, no, I'm straight" (and a polite 'thank you' if the assumption was coming from a woman hitting on me).  Mostly, that drops the issue, but I'm occasionally asked, "Really?  Are you sure?  Because you give off a really different vibe."  These are people who would never dream of asking a lesbian, "Really?  Are you sure you're not into men?"

It is somewhat of a double standard.  These people, the ones saying "Of course I always just knew it, it was so obvious," would be OUTRAGED if, for example, a teacher assumed an effeminate young man or a tomboyish girl preferred same-sex relationships.  They get (rightfully) up in arms when guys who happen to like their long hair get called 'faggot' by the ignorant.  But they see absolutely no contradiction in assigning sexual preference themselves without confirmation.  I don't get that.

By the way, I've been asked how I manage my own assumptions regarding sexual preference.  It's pretty easy.  If you've never clearly stated your sexual preference to me yourself, in my head I assign you a nebulous potential bisexuality.  Might like men, might like women.  Might like both.  Might like neither.  Might be Captain Jack Harkness.  You just never know.

And as a number of gentlemen of my acquaintance can attest, if it becomes personally relevant I have no reluctance to simply clear the air and ask the question.  It started off as compensation for my lack of gaydar, but it's become more of a rejection of the notion that there's any way to really know anything about another person's sex life he didn't tell you himself, and an advocacy for the idea that open communication will always trump assumptions based on interpretations of social cues.