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

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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

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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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.

One Day Closer

Today brought me one day closer to finishing this Ph.D. Along with six of my classmates, I passed the written comprehensive exams and stayed on track for achieving candidacy (i.e. all but dissertation) by the end of the spring. Last week, a friend asked me if I feel any closer to knowing what I want to do than I was when we started, to which my honest reply was, “Nope.” I don’t think this sentiment is uncommon though—I get the sense that most of my cohort feels the same way.

It would be really easy right now to write about all the things I don’t want to do when I finish the degree—I’m trying not to take that approach. If my past experiences are any indication, I tend to take a position and reshape it into something that matches my personality, while still managing to effectively meet the job’s objectives. It worked when I managed volunteers, and it worked when I co-coordinated a health education project based on community building and organizing. Still, the challenges get a bit different after going through this kind of academic process. Although I’ve never viewed myself as a “traditional” academic, let along a “traditional” social worker, the temptation is certainly there to take the kind of academic job that would keep me gainfully employed for the next several years. I still don’t know, though, if I’d be happy—or doing everything that feeds my passions. So what do I think I want to do? Let me think this out and see where we end up.

Write. Without a doubt, one of the most satisfying pieces of going back to school and leaving the day to day work of nonprofits has been the ability to start writing in an in-depth, thought-provoking way about things that interest me. I lost years of creativity when I was immersed in my old agency job—too much of that creativity, not to mention the emotional and psychological “heft” of the work environment, was absorbed by other people, and in my free time it was all I could do to unpack those many complex feelings before heading back to work. Whatever I end up doing, it needs to include some creative element. Moreover, I have at least two book ideas that I want to develop—one for sure that will take me to San Francisco to research next year. Years ago I wrote a novel that was well-received by most people who read it, yet I never found a publisher. I might still try to get that book out, maybe online.

Build stuff. Not with my hands, but at least conceptually I like making things. I like building groups and communities around shared dreams and desires. I like helping people visualize a “big picture” goal, and then work backward to think about all the steps needed to reach that goal. Big surprise, I love logic modeling! In terms of managing what gets built? Not quite as interested. I do like evaluation and tailoring, but the homeostatic piece gets to me over time—inertia sets in and I need a new project.

Listen to people’s stories. I used to love—love—reading Studs Terkel’s oral histories when I was younger. In general I love seeing the narratives people put together when asked to share some meaningful story of their lives. When I led a creative team at Michigan State and started the university’s first queer magazine, we emphasized first-person stories of people’s experiences and tried to foster conversations both in its pages and in the residence halls and coffee shops where it was read. To some degree, online social media have assumed some of the role in facilitating people’s connections to each other’s stories. At the same time, I think we’re still learning the “emotional” geography of online spaces, and figuring out how and why certain online forums evoke certain types of emotional responses.

Help. It might seem odd to have a degree in social work, but hold little interest in working in social service agencies. But I think what has always interested me—especially coming from queer organizing—is understanding the ways in which groups outside the mainstream find ways to take care of each other, when systems don’t exist to adequately address or understand their needs. Queer history is rich with examples of this, dating back to well before Stonewall (hence my interest in writing certain books). And I am pretty certain that in the present day, many of these self-created systems of caring—“chosen family” or otherwise—continue to develop outside of the mainstream’s view of what’s typical or normal. I tend to find these scenarios much more enriching to understand than the formalized systems we often train workers to deal with. Not that social service systems don’t have a role to play! But in terms of where my curiosity and my passions lead me, it’s the new territory, the uncovered stories of how people “make stuff work” that keeps my attention.

Some might look at all these elements and say yep—this is an academic. But I can’t say I have much taste for the full-time research track that this degree prepares me to pursue. I do enjoy teaching college students—but this is also still new and exciting, not something I have done for years and years. If I could find a way to pay the bills and get a couple books published once I’m done with this degree, I’d be happy. But to some degree we always have to balance what we want to do with what we need to do to survive, yes?

Luckily I still have another 1.5 to 2 years to figure this all out. But in the meantime I’m open to suggestions!