February Afternoon at Minnehaha Falls

I’m sick and tired of the cold, but the sunlight makes a difference. We walked the dog at Minnehaha Park yesterday and caught this scene in the late afternoon.

Minnehaha Falls in Mid-February

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Beyond the Formal Work

I haven’t written a posting for a while because I spent most of January writing my next pre-dissertation special topic paper. Also, I’m taking a course in the use of storytelling to support research. We have a number of interesting assignments, so to keep the good times rolling on here I am going to publish the stories I come across, as long as I have my interviewees’ permission. The first one today is from an assignment where we were asked to collect three stories from family or a group of friends. I chose to get together with a small group of close friends who started off as volunteers with me in my former job.

Prior to starting my Ph.D., I spent several years employed with a community-based HIV/AIDS organization. I stayed with the organization for almost eight years because much of my work involved organizing volunteers from the community, who annually donated several thousand hours of their time to support the organization’s efforts. For five years, I was responsible for recruiting, training, and supervising volunteers for our largest fundraiser, a 10k walk in Minneapolis that required the help of up to 500 people on the day of the event. Because of the high stress and long hours of planning involved, I grew close to a small number of “Captains,” the volunteer leaders who guided our production timeline in the months leading up to each annual AIDS Walk. Upon leaving the organization, I found that my friendships with these individuals grew quite close, and we often see each other for holidays, parties, and other meaningful occasions. Because we all share a common experience from different vantage points, and because we continue to stay close with each other, I wanted to use this opportunity to learn more about how we remembered our work together, along with what made us specifically feel the desire to continuing onward as friends. How did we come to prioritize friendship with each other, compared to others who may have been similarly involved in running the AIDS Walk?

To explore this topic more fully, three people– Sara, Elizabeth, and Coco—joined my partner Jaxon and myself at the Longfellow Grill, where we talked over food and drinks.

How did you come to be involved with the AIDS Walk?

Elizabeth. The AIDS Walk volunteer experience for Elizabeth began quite suddenly when she received a phone call one year from her friend Nathan (unable to attend), saying, “I need your help tomorrow!” The next day she arrived at 5:30 in the morning, where she was thrown into the mix because Nathan trusted her to get work done in a fast-paced, somewhat chaotic environment. The next year, Elizabeth was made a Captain, although does not recall being asked. Most likely, we thought, Nathan volunteered her for the role, and because the particular area she would oversee involved a great deal of precise planning, staging, and execution, she felt a strong connection to the task. Although she felt like there was little to do in her first year, Elizabeth considered the experience to be friendly; becoming the lead organizer for event signage also appealed because, as she said, “I am a control freak and I like to own things.” Describing her approach as “ideation,” she notes, “I can’t solve a problem until I know everything that came before it. Stop talking about it—let’s go.”

Coco. Although currently retired, Coco became involved with the AIDS Walk through her former company, a large corporate sponsor that hosted a rest area along the 10k course. The rest area activities did not appeal to her however, and she realized that other opportunities—specifically heavy lifting and hauling—fit her interests more closely. She quickly became a standout “muscle crew” member despite her small, wiry frame. Coco felt that the experience of moving around, working with teams, and building the event from the ground up (before tearing it all down) was more appealing than “standing around, handing out bananas.” She described doing some of the most thankless work of the event—hauling tables, putting up signs and banners, hauling garbage, raising tents—but found the crews to be so friendly that she wanted to come back.  After five years of volunteering, she continues in her role as well as helping in the organization’s office on weekdays.

Sara. Although the youngest of the group, Sara was involved the longest, going back 14 years to when she was a young teenager. Beginning first as a walker and then volunteering, she became a Captain at age 18, a role she kept until age 28. She identified a prior volunteer coordinator as her major influence for getting so involved, saying, “She was just awesome, and we got along so well. It was a very personal connection. I was 14 years old telling my mom, ‘Drive me to the city so I can make safer sex kits!’” Having a number of gay friends and attending her school’s gay-straight alliance in the late 1990s, she felt that HIV/AIDS was a meaningful cause to her and her close associates, which combined with the personal contact she felt with staff, kept her committed throughout her young adulthood. Through this work, Sara felt that she built relationships with people outside the “normal” circles of her suburban upbringing, who came together regularly to volunteer and have fun. Responding to Sara’s recollections, Elizabeth found it amazing in their 12 years of age difference, so much had changed with respect to LGBT visibility and support. She was especially struck by the notion that a 14 year old could find community in an urban social environment that used to be considered taboo in many circles.  For Sara however, it was noteworthy that 15 years ago, HIV/AIDS fundraisers like this one had a much closer identification with LGBT communities, which she and the others felt was not as true in recent years.

What kept you involved?

Both Sara and Elizabeth have transitioned out of their volunteer roles, while Coco continues to stay involved. Although each friend described different reasons for staying involved with the Walk during our years together, there were slight variations in their responses as well. Elizabeth described her strong orientation to the task she was given and her need to fully visualize and solve the problems it presented. Sara and Coco, meanwhile both started by recalling their relationships to the people around them, and feeling a sense of community. Aside from just the general atmosphere of friendliness however, I noted that specific friendships seemed to occur that transcended the shared work and continued outside of the volunteer setting. At this point, Jaxon shared that although he came to the Walk and helped out as my partner, his stance over time shifted from reluctant (but obligatory) involvement to looking forward to seeing people that he knew I trusted with major responsibilities. His sentiment caused me to remember how during one of my first Walk seasons, Sara asked me how she could surprise Jaxon with a nice “thank you” for coming to help in the early morning. I suggested a mocha drink from Caribou Coffee, which she presented to him so suddenly that his face “melted” with gratitude, and they have been close friends ever since.

Elizabeth observed, “Let’s be honest—the day of the event is never fun. But it’s the people that make the difference.” She looked forward to doing the prep work every year, seeing everyone, and coming to the large planning meetings where people could form and/or rekindle connections to each other. She noted that during one year when smaller, more task-centered “satellite” meetings were attempted, the work was simply “less fun.” In response I shared my own observation from early in my involvement, when I found that many of these volunteer Captains got together in their own time over food or long walks, simply to hang out and share ideas for future Walks. I was frustrated at the time because it seemed that a great deal of energy around this event occurred when staff was not involved, in part because staff only met with the volunteers during official meetings. I described my response as, “Take me for a walk. Invite me out for coffee or happy hour. Let me be a part of the process when you come up with these inspired ideas, so we can actually connect your thoughts to the technical operations of the event. I don’t want the separation.” Building on this thought, Sara shared that at times, this perceived distance between staff and the volunteers led her to consider leaving. “I still remember telling them to consider different incentive prizes for the walkers, like iPods. Every other event out there was giving away nicer prizes for their top fundraisers, but we were giving away hats or a fleece. Three years later, they finally adopted it.”

Coco’s current volunteer role includes overseeing Walk signage, which means the responsibility has passed from Nathan, to Elizabeth, to her (“keeping it in the family”). She sees a lot of changes coming to the event, which may be positive or may create confusion. While we all agreed that change is necessary for large operations such as this event, she did share concern that newer staff may not understand the necessity of certain assignments or ways of carrying out the work. 

Beyond the volunteer work, what makes us stick together?

At this point, I raised my key question. We spent time with a number of people who worked hard on the AIDS Walk, who brought ideas, passion, and kindness to the experience. But, what led us to specifically stay in close contact with each other? Jaxon related it to another friendship he has nurtured with someone who studied overseas with him, using the term “translation” to characterize how a relationship that is meaningful in one setting continues to be meaningful beyond that specific context. Everyone emphasized the strength of emotional connections, the ability to trust each other, and the feeling of looking forward to seeing certain people that endures despite changes in everyone’s involvement.

Elizabeth raised other noteworthy quirks that we as friends seem to share “in a cool, serendipitous way,” such as an affinity for the British television show Doctor Who and an appreciation for Scotch whiskey. She and I both recalled an experience where she had been very dissatisfied not with me, but with a pre-AIDS Walk process that was changed without her consideration. Where she had felt bad about delivering negative feedback to me, I had felt grateful for her forthrightness and willingness to share exactly what she felt. I said, “You told me what you needed, and that is so refreshing.” For me, I remember that exchange as a striking encounter where two people found a way to navigate a complicated technical issue while affirming each other’s personhood throughout the encounter. What became apparent, then, was that the significance of our work together included the fact that we did more than just simply work. We took the time and space to engage with other aspects of each other’s life experiences and personalities, finding that beyond the regard we shared for the task at hand, each of us were connected in other meaningful ways.

Every person in our group shares a common set of experiences with the AIDS Walk, yet we all came to the event from different perspectives and responsibilities. Looking back  on my own role as staff during those years, I reflected that common knowledge may view the formal role of volunteer management as facilitating a positive environment in which volunteers feel a meaningful connection to their work. Beyond these characteristics, I found that the informal experience of building relationships, making space for interpersonal dynamics, and building trust can transcend the technical aspects of our shared work, thus enabling each of us to recreate meaningful and reciprocal friendships beyond the endpoint of our formal relationships.

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.

A Saturday Afternoon, in January, in Minnesota

I’ll write more soon, but wanted to share these photos from our afternoon hike. We’ve had a decent reprieve from the more severe temperatures this weekend, leading to some lovely, bright winter afternoons. Being out on a frozen lake with our dog, not another sound to disturb us, has enormous appeal.

 

Zuzu on ice

Zuzu on ice

Take only photos, leave only footprints.

Take only photos, leave only footprints.

Hard to believe this is on the edge of a city.

Hard to believe this is on the edge of a city.

The Good Year

Ever since 2008, Jaxon and I have kept the habit of giving each new year a broad theme, something that we hope to accomplish in the months ahead. It started after that perilous year when the economy crashed, and we had the first big financial scare of our partnered life together. We retroactively labeled 2008 the Year from Hell, due both to the loss of his business and four months unemployment, as well as the fact that between us and our families we lost six cherished pets, due either to old age or illness. Looking ahead, we labeled 2009 a year of stabilization, and by the end I had applied for my Ph.D. program. Then, 2010 became the year of transformation, as I started my program and began to transition out of my former job. Building on this theme, we labeled 2011 the year of growth, during which I left my old job entirely and jumped into the uncertain world of adjunct teaching to keep the bills paid. In 2012, our year of acceleration, I made steady progress, had one paper accepted for publication while another won an academic award, and passed my written exams, while Jaxon abandoned the paint store job that got him through the recession and restarted his own business. It hasn’t been without turbulence—at times exhausting and uncertain, as we’ve struggled to make ends meet. But, looking back as well as ahead, we’ve decided to name 2013 The Good Year.

 

Although I hate New Year’s resolutions, keeping a theme for the year has helped us frame our conversations, giving a bit of context to what we expect of ourselves. For me, the goals are to remain steady and get my dissertation proposal written and approved, while working to lose weight, keep seeking out new income sources, and building momentum for the books I would like to write post-dissertation. Meanwhile, Jaxon has weathered some of the early storms that come with launching (or relaunching) a business. Thanks to a dear friend, he has studio space to work in for a while, and some room to expand creatively beyond the faux finish and interior design work that can pay decently, but also get physically taxing and creatively monotonous. He needs to create, plain and simple, whether it be art, or space, or furniture, or some wonderful combination of these elements.  More significantly, we’ve both agreed that how he builds his business this time needs to be based on the quality of relationship he can build with people, who understand and seek out a more reciprocal relationship with an artist and/or designer. By this I mean, people who are less concerned with negotiating down to the last penny of a deal, and more open to working with someone over time, maybe first on smaller projects but maintaining a line of communication, as well as empathy and creative exchanges. I think that in older times, Jaxon would more easily fit the definition of an artisan or craftsman, who would maintain relationships with a few important patrons and produce custom works. It’s hard to do that in the modern economy, when mass production and cheap labor more or less rule the consumer market and force niche artists like him to undercut the value of their own time and efforts.

 

What this means for The Good Year has yet to be seen. Although I’m cautiously optimistic, a number of other factors need to come together, including this tepid economy and the continued good health of our pets and household. The only way to find out will be to live the damn thing. Right?

Classic Holiday Movie Post #5

This one we never miss. Every year Jaxon and I have managed to watch this together, either on video at home or at a local movie house. It’s best on the big screen, for sure. And, one of the few films I’ve been to where the audience without fail applauds and sings along to the musical numbers. Try it sometime!

Classic Holiday Movie #6: White Christmas

Bing, Danny, Rosemary, and Vera dance and sing their way through a decidedly unsnowy Vermont inn, bringing together the entire population of Broadway and the U.S. military to wish their retired general a very Merry Christmas. Aside from the final act (including both General Waverly’s entrance and the final rendition of the title number) which always leaves me a little teary-eyed, my favorite scenes are always the “Choreography” number and of course Bing and Danny’s hilarious pantomime of “Sisters.” Here’s some additional video.

What I Meant to Write Last Week, Only Surlier

Before the tragedy in Connecticut last week, my intention was to write about our short mid-week trip to Iowa. I was also going to get a wee bit political. Let’s see if I still can.

Toward the end of November, I had a pleasantly surprising phone call from a very dear friend. I’ve known Tony for about 10-plus years, going back to when we both interned/worked on contract for a small AIDS organization in Michigan. Although about 25 years my senior, he and I easily bonded and in some ways over time our relationship evolved from mentorship to something more fraternal as we both moved, changed jobs, and had various ups and downs with our relationships.

He and his partner Joe now live in upper Michigan, not far from Lake Superior and not too removed from Minnesota. With my school commitments, we haven’t seen much of each other in the last few years, but Tony called to tell us that they were traveling to Iowa to officially get married. With the latest election results, he concluded, federal recognition of same-sex marriage is an inevitability and, the sooner they have official paperwork, the more likely that in the future, social security survivor benefits will have to recognize that official marriage date. Additionally—and this was the most touching piece—Tony and Joe asked if Jaxon and I would come down to Iowa and serve as their official witnesses. It seemed fitting, both for our relative proximity and the way our personal and professional lives have been woven together over the past decade. To say the least, Jaxon and I were humbled and moved. We said yes.

The ceremony was pretty straightforward. The judge was extremely kind and cordial, and the recitation of vows went smoothly. To summarize: Tony and Joe promised to enter into a publicly-affirmed, legally binding (in Iowa) declaration of their commitment to one another. They promised to care for each other through hardship. They affirmed their intentions to remain committed to each other for the rest of their lives. They put their love for each other on paper, in a court of public law. To witness our friends make this commitment was a privilege.

Of course, a few days prior to this, one Supreme Court Justice, who will soon cast a vote determining whether or not the United States should recognize same-sex marriage, used the opportunity of a public confrontation (by a very brave gay college freshman) to re-affirm his view that the public has a right to label same-sex intimacy as morally reprehensible as murder. Now, I am not a Constitutional scholar, and without a doubt Antonin Scalia can argue me under the table when it comes to the Founders’ true intentions. Given the horrible nightmare Newtown, Connecticut, just endured, perhaps Justice Scalia simply needs a refresher in a couple key qualitative differences between same-sex coupling, and murder. Now I am aware that Scalia directed his comments toward “homosexual behavior,” but given how the arguments around homosexuality before the Court have coalesced around marriage equality, I am going to stick to that framework for my points below.

Difference #1: One involves consenting adults, agreeing to mutually support each other through life’s difficulties and highlights. The other involves taking human life, presumably without their consent.

Difference #2: Over time as people have gotten to know and grow familiar with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in their own families and communities, support for same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination measures have generally increased. Support for murdering other human beings (with the exception of our confounded tolerance of post-colonial warfare and the death penalty) has generally remained low over time, even when people have gotten to know the murderers in their communities.

Difference #3: There doesn’t need to be a Difference #3. But, apparently the distinction isn’t clear enough for others who share this man’s views. In the wake of Netwon, both James Dobson and Mike Huckabee boldly declared that society’s growing tolerance of gay people bore some of the blame for a twenty year-old, mentally ill loner taking several automatic weapons into an elementary school and hunting down its children, faculty, and staff. In their estimation, America (and we gay people specifically) have turned our backs on God.

I’m going to offer a slightly different interpretation: people who seek the right to marry a partner of the same gender (and frankly, people whose gender identities have changed since birth as well), and people who support these efforts may or may not recognize the God of Messrs. Scalia, Huckabee, and Dobson. But, increasingly I would say that Americans are turning away from huckster capitalists who use their increasingly outmoded platforms to try to bully and intimidate people into believing something that is contradicted by the evidence we collect in our own lives and experiences. Believe what you will about the Bible or any other sacred text. People have the ability to determine with their own eyes, ears, and feelings whether or not same-sex intimacy is morally reprehensible, and increasingly that evidence is making lay people question the unyielding authoritarian (yet increasingly desperate) huffing from evangelical radio and TV (or Rome for that matter). Where previously people could be bullied into believing warped depictions of individual misbehaviors or social outcasts, more and more they recognized their loved ones. Where people had previously viewed those who were different as somehow diseased and depraved, more now recognize and empathize with very human struggles and triumphs. Ultimately, in my opinion the depravity these men now rail against is in fact the continued withering irrelevance of their own overinflated control over a society that, while certainly flawed, is growing more keen to recognizing authentic struggles and basic unfairness. Those who are most threatened, I believe are those who have gained the most from systematically maintaining these inequalities.

I have no doubt how Antonin Scalia will vote in the arguments pertaining to same-sex marriage. His “originalist” perspective certainly affords him the opportunity to sit comfortably behind an orthodoxy that emphatically views the Founders’ words as final (even though they quite nakedly punted the moral issue of slavery down the field for future generations to resolve). But, the next time I see someone equate queer people to murder, I’ll remember last week. I’ll remember Tony and Joe, embracing before the judge and their two admiring friends, promising to love and honor each other for every day of their lives. I’ll remember the horror of Newtown that came too soon after. And, morally speaking. I am pretty confident that an increasingly abundant number of citizens will be able to recognize that the two events are not remotely equivalent.

Newtown, CT, and the Gun Conversation

Fighting off an early winter cold hasn’t given me much energy or desire to write. I had intended my first new post to focus on the wedding of our friends Tony and Joe, but that will have to wait, given the heartbreaking and haunting ordeal that took place yesterday in Connecticut. I’ve only had a couple experiences with gun violence in my life, certainly not enough to qualify me as an expert on either mass shootings or gun laws. Looking back on the vivid accounts of yesterday’s tragedy, I think that I could take any number of directions in writing this piece today. It seems only proper though to start with my own lived experiences, which although limited, at least speak to what I know, and what I imagine might be the perspectives of those living through yet another apparently senseless and surreal set of circumstances.

When I was maybe four or five years old, my parents took us (my two older sisters and I) on a walk through a stretch of woods owned by my grandfather. It was the site of the family’s old hunting camp, a rotting old structure tucked away on 40 or so acres of woods in rural northern Michigan. I think it was mid-fall, although I don’t remember much more than sunny conditions, mild temperatures, and stomping through leaves on the ground. I do remember that there was good visibility through the trees though, because some people in a gold Jeep started shooting at us from the road, through the trees. I remember going to the ground and being held there, probably by my sisters. After the gunfire persisted for a few minutes, my father jumped up and started yelling that he had his family with him. As he ran toward the road, the jeep sped off. Keeping close to each other, we hiked quickly up to my uncle’s nearby farm to safety. Although we crossed open pastures to get there, I remember how my sisters and I kept looking around, backwards and sideways to make sure that the shooters hadn’t circled back to ambush us. I don’t think my parents ever figured out who these people were or their motives. It may have been poachers, mistaking any movement for deer. Or, it may have been people playing a cruel prank to scare us.

Despite the fact that multiple people in my family—my father, uncles, aunts, and cousins—all routinely took time for deer hunting, I never had an interest in owning a real gun. Almost twenty years later when I was a college hippie queer radical, I would take weekends to visit and weld sculptures with my mentor, a clinical social worker and minister living in a rural mid-Michigan township, right in the heart of deeply conservative citizen militia country. To some degree, the presence of guns in homes, church, and the local café was just more or less accepted. On a trip to the diner one evening, we ran into an older man I would later learn was the second highest-ranking official in one of these militias. Upon meeting me, seeing my long hair, and learning where I lived (the state capital), he commented, “There’s gonna be hunting season down your way soon.” We didn’t have much to really say to each other—my particular radicalism and critiques of American government weren’t really compatible with his. In fact, I saw enough of his worldview to know that if “hunting season” really did come to my city, I’d probably be wearing a big, pink target in this man’s eyes. After eating, we went home where my mentor cleaned his pistol and I welded a new sculpture– a compact, sturdy column of stainless steel strips I ended up calling, “The Shaft.”

The limited news from Connecticut indicates that this new shooter was a “nerd” type who had a mental illness diagnosis of some kind. Having lived the life of a too-clever social outcast at various points in my youth, I can relate to how lonely and difficult that experience can be. And, although mental health hasn’t been my focus in social work, in my personal life I have witnessed psychotic breaks before. It’s a surreal experience to see a person you know and love, responding to some kind of stimuli that isn’t apparent to anyone else in the room. People wonder how this twenty-year old kid could shoot a roomful of elementary school students. I wonder what he was seeing and hearing that led him to feel like the only thing he could do was arm himself, pull the trigger, and keep firing. I wonder because when I was a child and people shot at my family, my dad’s instinct was to run toward the shooters, arms flailing and screaming for his family. When I was a young man and a grizzled militiaman measured me up and pronounced me “bait,” my impulse was to withdraw and make something cold, steel, and comforting but not lethal in my hands. I cannot imagine what it feels like to pull a trigger, knowing that it would in fact annihilate. But, I can relate to feeling powerless, frightened, and isolated, a set of primal emotions that I suspect were shared in various ways and stages by the victims, the heroic teachers and responders, and the shooter.

There’s a difficult conversation brewing around guns, violence, and the proper approach for regulating society’s interactions with these weapons. At any point this is a challenge for our severely polarized communities, but with the enormous grief so many are carrying right now, I can’t imagine it will take long for rage and mutual recriminations to surface. In a way, I see guns as tools of proxy in that generally, they enable human beings to exert our power toward others (human or otherwise) from a somewhat removed position. A gun is a less intimate tool for resolving conflict than say a knife or one’s own hands. It’s been argued by some that the solution to preventing gun violence is having more guns, and more weapons-trained gun users in the community. I’ve heard mentors and other close family members say that regardless of whether they have to use it, just possessing a gun reassures them that they can defend themselves from intrusions or incursions. The question I still have, the question I struggle to get, is this: When someone is convinced that the absolutely correct decision is to pull the trigger, what do they perceive around them? What do they see, hear, and feel that convinces them that shooting is the most “right” thing to do? And, to what degree did they feel like they had the power to choose any other alternative?

Whereas for me the impulse and resolve to fire a weapon at someone is relatively alien and unsettling, ultimately I do think the gun law debates that are about to erupt will serve as proxies for a larger and more unwieldy conversation that needs to happen around power, self-determination, and shared wellbeing. If we cannot agree on the propriety of regulating firearms, can we at least reach a consensus on certain events being preventable tragedies? Where said events are in fact preventable and certain safeguards can be established and reinforced (either by authorities or a committed citizenry), to what extent can we at least agree to these contingencies?

Classic Holiday Movie Post #4

This one’s truly in the “great” category for Christmas comedies. About 10 years ago I worked for an independent video store, and the owner wanted to make a commercial with each of us reciting a “favorite” line from a holiday movie. After a while he had to say, “No, not that one.” So many quotable lines…

Classic Holiday Movie #5: A Christmas Story

“You’ll shoot your eye out!”

“Fra… geeeee…. leeeeey… Must be Italian!”

“It’s a beautiful duck, it’s… you see, it’s smiling at me.”

Any other favorites from A Christmas Story? Comment back and add to the list!

Thoughts on Hitchcock, Stress, and Weight Loss

I don’t know much about Alfred Hitchcock’s personal life, certainly not enough to judge whether the movie Hitchcock is a faithful representation of his character or marriage. It was, however, a very entertaining story, well worth the time to see Hopkins and Mirren fill their larger than life personas. While Helen Mirren’s Alma Reville certainly rises to the occasion, the Alfred Hitchcock portrayed here betrays a deeper insecurity, which is especially apparent if you pay attention to Anthony Hopkins’ eyes. I’m not giving away much by pointing out that Hitchcock’s legendary portliness, while certainly influenced by his filmmaking success and rich appetite, is also shown here as due in many ways to stress, anxiety, and insecurity. In the scenes where he’s very clearly stress eating, he looks very much like the scared little boy, hiding behind his fleshy defenses.

Without a doubt these images resonated with me. I first began to struggle with my weight around age 7 or 8, although maybe it was earlier. Looking back, I can see a combination of factors that worked against me—being a clever kid with good grades, physically awkward and awful at physical sports; social awkwardness that made me more comfortable talking to grownups than kids my own age (who generally disliked my overachievement in class and enjoyed my shortcomings in gym class and other sporting activities); and, generally speaking, just not knowing how to cope constructively with stress, anxiety, and depression.

I can identify a few key moments in my adult life when I managed to re-make my body. First, like a number of gay teens I have met I dropped a substantial amount of weight when I came out, found friends, and gained a ton of confidence in myself. Over time though, the blessing of an enriched social life (especially in college) can turn into joyful overindulgences, and college especially added some (but not all) of the pounds back on. The second time I felt a significant change came when I went to NYU for a summer, when the experience of being alone in Manhattan and needing to walk everywhere certainly had an impact. Getting a Master’s degree in social work, however, re-introduced me to food as a way to cope with stress. I’ve often said that comfort food is the social worker’s drug of choice—and after years of work in the social services, I haven’t seen much evidence to convince me otherwise.

The third occurrence came when I moved to the Twin Cities several years ago. I was single, taking walks every day over the lunch hour, and working at a job that frequently had me on my feet doing outreach in the local gay bars. Although I was able to keep that weight level for a few years, gradually it creeped upward as my job became more stressful and Jaxon and I settled into a domestic routine. I’m absolutely convinced that stress plays a major role in how I gain and lose weight. My first year in the Ph.D. program—when I was still working full-time at my old agency—led me to balloon up again, with my blood pressure spiking as well. Even though I swam laps twice a week, it was easier to grab pre-made food or order out than drag my mentally exhausted brain and body to the co-op and then the kitchen.

Over the last year or so, I’ve tried to re-introduce some balance in my life. It helps that we started making communal dinners with our housemates and changed our shopping habits so that we get fresh food in shorter amounts, over multiple trips to the co-op each week. Recently though, a big catalyst for me has been meeting a new friend, also gay and about the same age that I was during my last major weight loss period. Having someone who’s been in my shoes, who doesn’t necessarily want to adopt the hardcore “training” mentality but is galvanized by his successes so far, has given me a new motivation to get a bit more active. (Not that I haven’t been active, but given how much time I spend on the laptop with research and lesson planning, I could use the boost.) I don’t know if I’ll be able to replicate my previous successes—honestly, right now I think that significant weight loss is less my goal than simply finding and keeping a balance. More importantly, I think back on the image of Anthony Hopkins as the unquestionably brilliant but deeply insecure Alfred Hitchcock, feverishly stuffing food in his mouth in an attempt to fortify himself from his own fright. I’ve been there, and will probably revisit that state of mind at some points again in my life. Part of this journey, this struggle, inevitably involves revisiting the pitfalls of my own past. Revisiting, however, doesn’t mean that I have to live there.

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