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 Salon.com. 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.

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Notes From the Holiday Weekend

My parents have been visiting this week, which has kept me from writing but given me time to reflect on a few things over the course of several days.

First, the way we do holidays here—staying put and focusing on good food, wine, and friendships—was validated in a really nice way. Several years ago we decided not to travel on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but instead to host “orphans” get-togethers with friends who were either away from, avoiding, or recovering from their families. We’ve intentionally kept the gatherings small—the number fluctuates every year but generally stays between 4 – 8 people. This year we invited my parents to come because Thanksgiving coincided with the Michigan State – Minnesota football game, and they needed a break from their usual holiday routine. Having my folks here to dine with my “orphan” friends proved to be quite delightful, as the day stayed very relaxed and everyone contributed to the efforts for making and serving the evening meal. I’ve reached the stage where I can’t imagine wanting to fall back into the same holiday routines that used to drive and exhaust us, so having our approach affirmed and enjoyed by my mom and dad felt good.

Second, I made an interesting observation while watching the new James Bond film. While the villain maintains the upper hand by keeping people situated on his turf, i.e. cyberspace, Bond draws him out into the barren wilderness where ultimately the winner will be decided by skill, mastery of the surrounding environment and its elements, and luck. Defeat comes ultimately at the end of a dagger, not the execution of a complex sequence of numeric equations. To me that’s an intriguing epiphany (albeit one drawn from a fictional action/drama/fantasy world)— the idea that in our efforts to control the elements around us, to harness industry, technology, and nature to accumulate wealth, comfort, and recgonition, the ultimate arbiter of our influence on (and value to) each other might still come from how we navigate our face to face encounters.  As someone who’s naturally talkative and who throws a lot of energy into my in-person encounters, I’ve been a hesitant user of social media, in part because I always saw it as a tool of my past jobs, which might blur the boundaries of social and professional relationships. But, more and more I’ve had to think through and reckon with the ways that some form of interface—whether through this blog or other online channel—is necessary to cut through the vast amounts of social traffic out there in order to connect with others who resonate with these ideas.

Related to that, for a good chunk of last week I found myself stressed out over a random financial aid hiccup and uncertainty over whether I’ll have a teaching assignment next semester. Over the past few months I’ve been debating whether or not to start searching for more long-term work, to give us some financial stability while I finish the Ph.D. It’s tough to figure out—keep juggling paychecks from semester to semester, or risk falling away from my trajectory right now to make sure the bills can get paid over the intermediate to long term. I had some good advice from a confidante last week though. This was key– reflecting on my recent panic and the less than empathetic response I felt I’d received from the administrative systems involved, she said, “You needed someone to care for you, and they didn’t.” It’s so striking when someone can boil down a nerve-wracking situation to something so simple, but it was true. On top of that, echoing the thoughts above, sometimes it seems like in the name of creating more efficient and responsive systems, we risk divorcing our responses from the humans involved, who have real stakes and concerns riding on the outcome. It really astonishes me (going back to my nonprofit days as well) when people managing administrative functions would distance themselves from some truly putrid decisions by saying, “It’s not me- it’s the system!” as if humans don’t ultimately influence the way systematic decisions are made.

So, to circle back to my wariness toward certain “created” environments as channels for connecting with each other, isn’t it interesting how we seem to develop these complex systems for establishing contact—whether it be for social affirmation, material support, administrative responsiveness, or whatever—yet the key ingredient is still the human on each side of the interface? Humans who are imperfect, insecure, emotionally vulnerable, and ultimately limited yet deeply interesting, talented, and capable beings in our own right?

In person and in direct contact with others, I trust myself to know where I stand. In direct contact with others, my strength has been helping people see the skills/powers they have in their own hands, guiding their actualization in a way that invites participation and shared ownership of the achievement. Although I haven’t been a Bond fan until recently thanks to Jaxon, the final climactic moments of the new movie left me resonating more with “his” environment—the barren, naked spaces where ultimately the extent of our survival depends on how well we know ourselves and our immediate, visceral connections—than the manipulations of the virtual world his nemesis has mastered. And the reason why I think I feel this way is the certainty that a visceral connection provides, no matter what the outcome I end up having to endure.

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!