The Summer I Bought New Pencils

The experience of putting hand to paper stimulates an entirely different writing experience for me. Back in 2016, I found this to be true as I started writing long hand at times to break through the long, dreadful periods of staring at the glow of my expectant laptop. I’m not sure why, but it took me until mid-2017 to go out and buy a pack of brand new pencils for the first time in… more years than I care to admit.

Suffice it to say, the selection these days is pretty limited. But the pack of black, No. 2 Triconderogas has served me well. I should’ve done this years ago: as a lefty, I’ve spent almost my entire life accumulating enough ink blots on my writing hand to make an entire book of Rorschach tests. But, in the maelstrom of our WiFi-enabled way of life, I still forget to just sit, think, and write what comes to mind. Going right to the keyboard just makes more sense, in terms of efficiency, but it never feels as second nature as pencil to paper.

My handwritten notes indicate that I bought the pencils right before Memorial Day, at the beginning of a summer that I’ll remember for two unforgettable events. For different reasons, I’m still trying to comprehend them both.

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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 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.

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?