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

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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!

To Keep Or To Sell

I won’t lie: money’s been a little tight lately. Despite a few signs of economic turnaround, this still seems to be the case for most of my friends and loved ones. With an eye toward identifying some sellable assets to shore up our savings, I pulled my old trumpet out of the closet—a silver Bach Stradivarius, purchased many years ago when I was a teenage band nerd. I remember that it was pricey then, and by the look of online prices at least, the value holds up well. It’s been almost 18 years since I played it with any regularity, and probably 10 since I last took it out, washed it, and gave it a go. Today when I took the horn out of its case, I could still detect some majesty under its tarnish. Old? Yes. Serviceable, and possibly sellable? For sure.

Having prepped a bath of warm water, I held it in my hands and began pulling the pieces apart. It was a gentle soak—not much debris coming out of the bell, since it had been silent for so many years. Washing it—and watching myself do this—put me in a somber mood, more reflective than I’d been expecting, but reminiscent of bathing a loved one whose time had likely grown short. Many years ago, playing band music was really my only emotional outlet. In my pre-coming out adolescence, the pressure of succeeding in school and band, always being “first,” and making sure no one could find fault in my performances consumed me, and in many ways that pressure boiled over when I couldn’t channel my feelings through that slender, erect, conical instrument. I could be a bit of a dick in those immature years, needlessly competitive and over-sensitive because it really felt like the slightest vulnerability could bring me down and shame me in the eyes of my peers. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t “perfect,” and that well-crafted instrument came to feel more like a part of my own body, capable of bursts of brilliance as well as sharp, defensive jabs when necessary to protect my fragile psyche.

When I came to terms with my sexual orientation and new friendships came my way, for the first time I felt safe to share all of who I was—and not surprisingly, my interest in that trumpet declined. College only accelerated that transformation as I found a love for the written and spoken word, community organizing, and social movements. Creativity came pouring out of my writing, the queer college magazine I started, and a novel I wrote in my senior year (but never published). Although music wove its way through everything I did, I felt little desire to pick up the horn. Later when I did, I had fun—playing along to Morphine songs and having spontaneous “bad music blues jams” with friends at parties. Still, as I landed squarely in nonprofit volunteer management, I lost track of the time and seldom felt the energy to dig the trumpet out and see what I could do.

So today I sat in my house, drying off this instrument that had been virtually an appendage for one complex stretch of my life. I got out the silver polish and started slowly working on the metal, and bit by bit the tarnish came off. The horn’s older, no doubt, but it gleamed as the sun emerged from a cloudy morning. I greased the slides and oiled the valves, all while carefully considering any imperfections that might affect its appraisal. Already I was getting excited, as I kept showing parts of it to my partner, demonstrating how beautiful the trumpet really looked. And finally—wasn’t sure I would do this—I put the horn to my lips and a clear, cold sound burst from it. Really not bad—I should take a decade or two off more often. Certain things came back right away—the embouchure, fingerings, vibrato, old ditties that were easy to try. The horn sounded good, but interesting to me was how I felt—different, secure, mindful of what this moment represented, and also aware of the absence of certain feelings—crushing insecurities and performance anxieties, frustration with my physical skills and existential angst. I asked myself if this could in fact be fun, and for the moment my answer was, “Yes.”

So, we still need money but I’m not sure I can bring myself to sell the horn. I also don’t know where this piece of myself fits with all the other parts that are in play right now—grad student, college instructor, researcher, writer, and occasional husband and housemate. But this integration process—taking a look at all the aspects of the self I’ve worked on, considering the pros and cons, and finding ways to make them fit together—feels more solid and secure with the trumpet restored and resting in the dining room. Jaxon says not to sell it, but I might still have it appraised.