Working for the Work Ahead


It’s a simple set of tasks, an annual ritual that signifies the changing of seasons, a reconfiguration of habits, and the compression of our living space back into the modest square footage of our 1880s farmhouse. Still, every fall when we pack away our porch furniture and winterize the wraparound porch, it’s a reluctant exercise that we avoid for as long as possible. Some of the work, like picking up leaves in the front yard, is pleasantly autumnal. I’m alone with my thoughts while raking and vacuuming up the browns, yellows, oranges, and reds that have made our lawn an earthy carpet for the past few weeks.

Together, Jaxon and I hang sheets of plastic over the porch screens and tack in glass window panels (actually a massive supply of cabinet doors he found in Ikea’s as-is section several years ago), a move that closes in our cabin-like summer retreat but drastically reduces the edge from icy northern winds. Our summer porch bed- a cozy full-sized box spring and mattress that somehow holds two adult men, two grown dogs, and an occasional visit by the cat – will be leaned against the shingled inside wall until we bring it inside for use by holiday guests. The cabin, as we call it, will go dormant until springtime.

In eight years of homeownership, we’ve made these rituals into central markers of the passage of time. It’s not as as nostalgic as Thanksgiving (my Super Bowl for cooking the big feast) or Christmas (our lowkey day of dog park visiting, leftovers for lunch, napping, and homemade soup). But, wrapping the porch and putting away the yard furniture represents a ritual of work, anticipating the dark and frozen winter to come while looking forward to the days when we can walk outside in shirtsleeves and drop the top on Jaxon’s convertible. We do our work so that we can repeat the cycle, fulfilling the patterns we’ve established that keep us connected to our home.  Continue reading


Just the Beginning

When I started running last spring, I could manage about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile nonstop before I would pause to walk for a stretch. By late summer and early fall, I had pushed that distance up to a mile, maybe slightly more. In the spring, I steadily extended that distance to 1 and 1/2, then 1 and 3/4. It sort of hovered there for a while. My overall distance on runs is about 5 miles. I think I probably could have pushed myself further, faster. At each stage, though, I let myself hold steady for a while. I think it was psychologically comforting; at some level, I knew I could take a break at that benchmark and finish the full run in reasonably good time and condition. Two weeks ago, I ran around Lake Nokomis in South Minneapolis. Two laps equal just around five miles, maybe a pinch more. From my car on the nearby parkway, I jogged to the lake and circled once around. Lately, my usually stopping spot to walk has been about 1.7 miles, as I reach the Cedar Avenue Bridge. I kept going. I made it a full lap around the lake, and I kept going. I made it three miles when, just as I was contemplating a breather to walk, my phone rang. Good excuse. I stopped, walked, and talked for about four minutes, and then continued to run the rest of the way. It was my best time ever, best speed per mile, and by far the longest I had run uninterrupted.

That breakthrough came exactly two days after my dissertation defense. As any good researcher will tell you, correlation does not equal causation, but I like thinking that my newfound endurance was symbolic of a burden lifted, setting my legs free to stumble further than they’d taken me before. As a closing image on these last five years of my life, it offers a certain optimism, albeit drenched in sweat and punctuated by my gasps for air. Continue reading

Back to San Francisco (Revisiting Shilts)

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City brought my first real attraction to San Francisco. Although still a couple years away from coming out, as a rural Midwestern teen in the early 1990s I sensed something about that miniseries—aside from curiosity about gay culture of the 70s— which drew me to a city that I had never visited. Its vibrancy, its colors, its characters, brought to life so vividly by Maupin, told me that there was a place for people who were different, who were not satisfied with settling into comfortable patterns and routines, who asked questions to which mainstream America offered few easy answers, and who found friendship and kinship with fellow travelers that wondered and wandered in their own spirited ways. When I finally came out, my 17 year-old mind devoured those six novels. I shared them with my new gay friends, and we chattered like only gay teens can about which character we each were—Mary Ann? Michael Tolliver? Mona? As fans of the Tales series know well, Armistead’s stories (always complicated, filled with compelling characters and delicious plot twists) grew more world-weary as the 1980s dragged on, as needless death and grief filled the Castro and a movement began to act up, screaming in outrage at a country (and its government) that didn’t seem to notice or care. In my half-dozen visits to San Francisco since 1996, I’d say I’ve become less fascinated and more familiar, but nothing has diminished my affection for the city. Touching ground in San Francisco means touching history for me, and again I am struck by how much of that story (which emanates out to touch so many people in the world) remains to be considered and shared.

Tonight, I will take a redeye flight back to Minneapolis after nearly two productive weeks. In the year since I last came and studied Randy Shilts’ papers, I wasn’t able to do much on the project except briefly meet his brothers and correspond with his closest associates. But, it’s an understatement to say that I’ve gone cold on the research. I allowed myself this extended time around Spring Break with the promise that I would make sufficient progress on the dissertation over the winter. When I get back, the dissertation goes on the front burner. In the meantime, I spent several productive days in two wonderful archives, the James C. Hormel Collection at the San Francisco Public Library, and the GLBT Historical Society. At one point during my stay at SFPL, I looked behind me to see the busts of Harvey Milk and George Moscone smiling across the room (which I will take as tacit approval for my ambitions). Right now, it’s safe to estimate that I’ve examined several hundred, if not thousands of pages of Randy’s papers, from diaries to personal correspondences, college papers, poetry, clippings, drafts, reviews, criticisms, and even his last will and testament.  Continue reading

Pondering Privilege, Fear, and Futures

About three times a week we meet, usually under a bridge, although sometimes at school. It was a hard habit for me to pick up, but once we started, I haven’t been able to shake it. My friend helps me, sticks with me, keeps me motivated so that even on the days I am winded and sore, we still finish a run/walk that spans anywhere from 3.5 to 5 miles. There are several positive aspects to my friendship with Shawyn, but key to so much of it is that we talk. There are numerous topics that flow through our brains—our dissertations, problems at our jobs, teaching experiences, hopes, dreams, fears… Any number of things that might occur to a pair of queer social work academics, both months away from advancing from ABD to Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, Shawyn said Shawyn was thinking of creating a new blog, and I encouraged it, saying, great! We could both write, maybe respond to each other’s posts, and use that interaction as motivation to keep the creative energy flowing. Since then, Shawyn’s gotten it moving. Me, not so much. Call it bad timing, work pressures, holiday malaise, end of year fatigue, whatever. I’m giving it a try now.

As I mentioned, any number of topics fly between us as we run, walk, and gasp for air (that’s more me). In truth, I enjoy the listening part more than talking, even though I’m a talkative guy and I do try (as someone slightly further ahead in our program) to share advice from what I’ve learned along the way. The morning we discussed blogging, Shawyn told me about recent conversations Shawyn had had with another individual of color, of the frustrations with recent news stories of unarmed African Americans killed by police, of the wariness and fear of simply walking around in a militarized, white-dominated society that seems hellbent on projecting every violent tendency of its own onto anyone who is perceived as different.

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Disappointment and Rededication

Fifteen years ago, I was a senior English major, on the verge of graduating with honors from Michigan State University. I had co-founded Q-News, MSU’s first literary magazine for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and allied students, led its staff to a well-received presentation at the national “Creating Change” Conference, and was close to finishing a novel that would serve as my creative senior honor’s thesis. What was my topic? It’s hard to narrow it down to a brief, polite blurb, but in a nutshell, here it is:

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Reflective Thinking

I feel unsettled, not necessarily by anything occurring around me, but by the amount of time I let pass before deciding to write something new for the blog. Part of my purpose in creating this space was to challenge myself to keep up on my writing and reflections, even as I have managed the multiplicity of tasks surrounding my Ph.D. work. It’s been easier said than done. I last wrote a piece in June, not far removed from a winter season that seemed to drag me (and everyone around me) into the depths of a frozen ennui. Today – heh – Jaxon and I could barely bring ourselves to walk the dogs on this frigid November Monday, when I can’t help but wonder if summer really happened.

Yet, I know it did. On multiple occasions, I meant to write about some key occurrences, each hitting an existential note in some way. To sum up:  Continue reading

From Anger to Inspiration?

I spent last weekend at the National Conference on Social Work & HIV/AIDS, a nicely organized event that seems to attract the kind of people around whom I want to be—smart, dedicated, compassionate, enthusiastic about their work, and self-reflective. The audience is part academic, part professional; in other words, a good place to test out the concepts behind my dissertation research. It was gratifying to see echoes of my topic—organizational change in community-based AIDS organizations—throughout the presentations. I was also pleased to find others who share my own interest in history, both in the development of these services and in their origins within the gay and lesbian community of the 1980s and earlier. (I say “gay and lesbian” here knowing that our current nomenclature—GLBTQIA—recognizes a much broader spectrum of identities.)

The conference also afforded me the chance to see How to Survive a Plague, a documentary using original film footage of ACT-UP, the grassroots movement led by HIV-positive activists, which radically altered the trajectory of America’s response to the AIDS epidemic. I have to confess, I’d avoided seeing the movie before this, even though plenty of friends had recommended it to me. My response to it was as emotional as I’d expected. It was probably a mistake to watch it right before my own presentation, but on the other hand, it grounded me back in the reality of my research question: How do services founded by and for the grassroots HIV movement experience change in the age of ACA?

Anyway, I digress. The film mostly focused on the years 1989 to 1995, from the first Bush presidency up to the introduction of combination anti-retroviral therapies, which seemed almost immediately to bring patients back from near death. Much of the film depicts the push and pull of grassroots politics at the time—people screaming to be heard, to have their fears and outrage acknowledged not just in the hearts and minds of bystanders, but in the policies and practices of government, medical research, and the pharmaceutical industry of the time. As Randy Shilts noted in And the Band Played On, the usually deliberate pace of clinical trials, testing, and approval for market use were not going to cut it when the world faced a pandemic of this scale. It took bold confrontation, impassioned actions, and dedication from those facing almost certain death to move the status quo to change. The fact that some of the original ACT-UP activists—including the legendary Larry Kramer, among others—today have survived speaks loudly to their accomplishment. Medical science today is winning the battle against HIV in controlled lab settings, but a social movement that connected these institutions to this deeply affecting human narrative was absolutely necessary to prod our civic leaders to move faster, with any urgency that no one would have believed necessary in previous decades.

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Finding Randy, Part 2

I’m not intending this discovery process to become the sole focus of the blog, but when I’m writing about things that interest me (and are interesting in my life), well, right now this is at the top of my list (dissertation notwithstanding).  San Francisco and Randy’s papers are less than a week away, but in the meantime, I’ve been continuing to catalog his early work in The Advocate. There are so many details to pore over that I’m just skimming the surface as I take pictures and make notes for later study. But, here are a few interesting things I have found so far:

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The Gen X Conversation

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to understand the social systems we create. After an adolescence spent trying badly to fit into the peer groups around me (and failing), I found a particularly meaningful role for myself by embracing my “outsiderness,” even as I became part of the burgeoning queer activist circles at Michigan State University, and later in Minneapolis. My abilities as a writer, thinker, and charismatic leader have served me well at times within existing paradigms, but really I have been at my best when creating new pathways, bringing together people who have felt marginalized in their own experiences and developing interesting ways to depict and respond to the world around us.

I start with that brief intro because I’ve been sitting for about a week on writing a response to this recent article by Sara Scribner on There are parts that resonate with me, and parts where, as a younger but fiercely proud member of Generation X, I can’t help but push back. I don’t disagree that we collectively may appear more distrustful of authority figures and reluctant to “step up” and lead as the Baby Boomers edge closer to senior citizenship. But, I also think there are important counters to consider. I’m not in a position to generalize, but let me offer some of my own experiences as examples.

Systems Include, Systems Exclude

My first counter is this: I agree with the author that there are good reasons to think we may be distrustful of authority figures because of how Gen Xers experienced divorce, scandals, media, etc. in our formative years. I find, however, that I am more distrustful of the systems that authority figures are expected to maintain, usually because it doesn’t take long to discover those who have been excluded versus those who are accepted within these social environments. My childhood, for example, was filled with moments where success in school undoubtedly brought me praise and acceptance by authority figures (my parents were teachers, so my teachers were their friends), but also led to some painful ostracism from kids my own age. Throw into it the fact that I was a heavier kid, a farm kid, and an exuberant sci-fi fan (Doctor Who and Star Trek!), and it’s safe to say I didn’t have many friends my own age.

I offer this not as a way to pity my socially awkward years, but to illustrate that for a kid like me, the existing social systems didn’t offer much in the way of understanding or empathy. Life was in many ways a struggle to “fit in,” which often involved enormous self-scrutiny in order to not attract any more negative attention than I already received from kids my own age. My mistrust of authority figures came less from my witnessing their own personal failures, and more from the fact that I viewed them as maintaining and often safeguarding social systems that had been created with a certain set of people in mind, but did not well serve those who didn’t fit in.

Systems Are Meant to Address Gaps

This leads in part to my second counter. By the time I arrived at Michigan State in the mid-1990s, I had come out and found my first small group of gay friends. My social circumstances had flipped from rural isolated white kid, to urban gay teen whose friends were mainly young, gay, and black. It had been, in a word, tremendous, and the acceptance I experienced at MSU came in part, I think, from the incredible amount of enthusiasm and confidence I was now sharing with those around me. The existing queer activist community had a lot to offer in terms of discussion groups and social events, but it was the lack of a shared creative outlet—a common medium for discourse around our identity. The magazine I co-founded was a success in part, I think, from our ability to offer safe space for people to write, draw, and think about their “otherness.” We touched a nerve that encouraged those who resonated to contribute in kind. Although for me personally, the experience paved the way for other future endeavors, for the community at MSU I believe the magazine played a key role in helping queer students connect to each other in that campus’ vast residence hall system, which supported the development of new channels of activism (neighborhood caucuses) that continue to the present day. Let me say that again—a new endeavor, based on the observation of what was missing in the current system of supports, contributed to the creation of new and different supports for queer students on the MSU campus.

Maintaining Openness = Not Achieving Adulthood??

My third counter comes from my experiences in community-level social work. I have never held a social work license, and I have never practiced therapy. But, my skill has always been the ability to look at the systems we create to help each other—and specifically for me, in queer-focused community building—and scrutinize the extent to which these approaches succeed, as well as how they inevitably function to keep certain people out.  Being able to connect with folks in organizing HIV prevention activities and later managing a large volunteer program taught me that to connect with a range of people—not just those who fit the exact description of what we’re seeking—I  had to maintain an open and affirming stance that helped me to relate to each person on his or her own terms. Not surprisingly, I found that this approach has helped me as a college instructor because I have to remember that each of my students is applying the coursework differently according to the work they are doing in their own lives. Without a doubt I still have to maintain a rigorous standard but as a student told me last year, “Wow, you are really tough but you are so laid back! You are right there with us the whole time.”

Now, true to my own Gen X leanings, I have no idea what I want my life to be like after I finish my Ph.D. The idea of focusing on one narrow but potentially lucrative career path and abandoning the many varied interests that have made me a well-rounded person feels like cutting off my fingers in order to showcase my nose. Where Scribner quotes Neil Howe as saying, “In order to mature and become an adult, you have to shut off options,” my rejoinder is that to be a fully actualized, wholly developed human, we must each take into account the aggregation of all our attributes and bring them to bear in our home, work, and social lives.

My experiences so far as an activist, organizer, writer, scholar, and thinker tell me that despite my lack of credentials as a leader in any one field, I have brought about change that others notice when they consider their own choices in life moving forward. How these contributions are recognized is fairly muted, but as I have often said, I’d rather be well known than famous. Too often, I have witnessed people who were mentors to me—the majority of them Baby Boomers—who accepted the notion that success in life comes from narrowing options and becoming increasingly single-minded. In very few instances have I seen these mentors sustain either individual happiness or professional effectiveness for the long haul. Rather, I have found people coasting on their previous accomplishments as others tried sympathetically not to upset them, and I have seen people hit their “red Ferrari” years and lash out pointedly at the families and jobs that have expected them to carry significant burdens for long periods. Scribner’s article seems to suggest that for Generation X, the midlife crisis represents a mere continuation of the myriad crises we have experienced since childhood. Perhaps it’s not such a stretch to imagine, then, that we may also possess an incredible capacity for coping that renders midlife more manageable and less visibly disruptive than what came to characterize (or even caricature) the generations before us.

Reading Between the Lines 

I offer these counters not to disprove what Scribner wrote about Generation X, but to challenge her and those she cited to read between the lines. If the popular question is to ask, “When will Gen Xers grow up?” I suggest that a number of us already did so, at a younger age and in a way that escaped notice in the popular culture because it involved seeking out and recognizing commonalities with people who had similarly experienced “otherness.” Some of us faced adversity early in life, learned from these struggles, and adopted a perspective that values this “otherness” as a way of changing our culture, less by engaging with existing political and social systems that we’ve experienced as exclusionary and self-perpetuating, and more by engaging with the people we find where genuine, mutually beneficial work can occur.

Maintaining the stance of the empathetic outsider has helped me to help others, both as individuals and as creators and maintainers of their own social systems. Scribner makes a point in her summation that, “If we’re going to make the country a better place, more suited to our values, we need to do it ourselves.” To the extent that I agree, I also think it is fair to ask, do we now “become” leaders by inheriting the roles left to us by Baby Boomers, who continue to linger in the systems they built (and which we may have experienced as exclusionary and reductionist)? My perception is that instead of following this more obvious approach, a number of us have shifted the focus of our leadership in scale and scope—forming our own self-selected families, affinity-based collectives, and/or urban tribes– so that, as we grow and change throughout the next phase of our lives, we continue to learn and draw strength from the crises that defined our formative years.

Returning to Stories

It’s that time of year when scholarship applications come due, which has given me an opportunity to revisit parts of my own story as it has evolved over the course of my adulthood. In some ways, my work has been closely tied to storytelling ever since my early years at Michigan State, where I co-founded a queer student magazine that emphasized first-person writing and thought-provoking conversations about people’s true lives and experiences. That experience came in handy over my career as I moved from publishing (not what I thought it would be) to social work and community organizing. At different points in my work I’ve had opportunities to use storytelling as a strategy for building programs and/or participation. For a while I was able to re-create the magazine format for an HIV prevention publication, which brought to light rich stories about participants’ lives, their struggles, and their self-conceptions of being queer, sexually active adults in a complicated, sometimes contrarian society. Eventually, though, the emphasis shifted as I was asked to do more formal work like grant writing, often using formulaic templates that the agency had copied and resubmitted as rote for several years.

Recently I was looking back on a scholarship application I submitted a couple years ago, while I was still working for that particular nonprofit. I didn’t receive any funding from this program, and in retrospect I see why. My responses to the essay question, while not bad, were also not terribly compelling. I’d written a laundry list of my achievements similar to the formula I saw my agency use for those fairly rote, mundane grant proposals. Reading through that essay again, I saw that it lacked a story, a meaningful narrative that traced my growth and development over time. There was no sense of past struggles, transformation, or self-revelations, only “I have accomplished this, and your money will help me do this…”

In my experience, the power of a story comes from the key moment when we find ourselves in someone’s narrative—being able to relate to the challenges presented, locate our feelings and do a self-appraisal, and then weigh the plausibility of the resolution (if it’s even achieved). When it comes to grants and scholarships, I think the key question for review committees would be whether the story presented is compelling enough for them to commit their funder’s resources, i.e. seeing a fit for themselves in the story. In research, I think it’s similar in that we are again trying to convey the investigation’s story in a way that demonstrates transparency and plausibility—the leaps we make in drawing conclusions have to be grounded in the best evidence available. Interestingly, as I barrel toward starting my dissertation I find myself returning to the essence of storytelling as the core focus of my work. While I’m not sure I really strayed too far from this endeavor, I know that for a while I felt too caught up in following the technical conventions of work and school to really see how essential these elements have always been to my work.