Friday, October 8, 2010

Traditions, Routines, and Rituals

With the crisp chill in the air and the tips of branches turning red to contrast with the bright blue sky, I can safely say that fall is well and truly here! Having lived most of my life in Florida, this autumn in New England will be my first "real" fall. And yet, even without a single red or orange leaf back home, autumn was always my favorite season.

Partly this has to do with the cooler weather, as I absolutely loathed summers in Florida. But partly it's because I find there's a natural rhythm, at least in this hemisphere and culture, to the last few months of the year. While I love feeling free and spontaneous in the summer, once I can see Halloween on the horizon, my thoughts turn to traditions and familiar routines. I get this powerful itch to spruce up the house in preparation to nest through the winter (even if winter will, in actuality, be just as busy as summer - my caveman brain doesn't seem to recognize that). Summer, to me, is a time for progress, moving forward, and embracing the new. But as the year dies away, I start looking toward the past and connecting with my roots a bit more. I feel more of a need to spend time in nature, to pace my life differently, to nurture myself and those closest to me rather than paying so much attention to the outside world.

Some of my favorite rituals and traditions as the year ends (which I hasten to add - I don't do everything every year!):

  • Going to pumpkin patches, corn mazes or apple orchards and enjoying the beauty of the harvest
  • State and county fairs, with all the lights, rides, terrible-but-delicious food, crafts, and so on
  • National Coming Out Day (Oct 11), LGBT history month (October) and the Transgender Day of Remembrance (Nov 20). Not "fun" holidays, exactly, particularly that last one, but important ones which make me feel connected to my queer brothers/sisters/siblings-of-nonbinary-gender.
  • Thrill the World, which I am not doing this year, but I had a BLAST at last year
  • Halloween and Samhain and all the fun stuff that comes along with that
  • ARGH, which I've only been to once and won't be back this year, but the fall gathering is so deliciously autumnal
  • NaNoWriMo, which I don't do every year (this year I am!), but I always plan on it, and so the forums are a big sign of fall to me
  • The return of Matt to regular, heavily-seasonal blogging, the Halloween and Christmas jukeboxes, and the annual Lego/Playmobil Advent calendar
  • Thanksgiving, with the food and the Macy's parade and the sense of "the holidays are on the way but people haven't started freaking out and gotten all bitter yet", is my favorite holiday
  • Doing a little something for Chanukah - I'm not Jewish, but Judaism has had a big influence on my beliefs, so while I'm celebrating a Christian holiday despite not being really Christian, I like to give a nod to Chanukah as well.
  • The winter solstice/Yule, which highlights the original "reason for the season" - celebrating light, warmth and companionship in the dead of winter
  • Christmas. Basically everything about Christmas, I do it all.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, besides the fact that I just feel like chattering excitedly, I also want to tackle a common misconception about unschooling. Many people think choosing unschooling for their family means throwing away any sense of routine, ritual, or tradition and just going wherever the wind may carry you. Some people find this idea very freeing, but for others, it's a turn-off. A lot of people feel anxious and disconnected when they don't have any predictability in life to anchor them, and a lot of these people may take one look at the apparently free-floating, hippie kind of life that unschoolers live, and go "Nuh-uh, no way, not for me!"

But unschooling doesn't have to mean throwing away all routines! What it *does* mean is that you don't force routines and traditions on your kids. It means you don't clap your hands at 10pm and announce that it's bedtime now, no matter what your kid is doing or how awake they are. It means you look at the things you do out of habit and examine whether they're actually meaningful and purposeful in your life.

But it doesn't mean you cannot ever plan anything. Not having bedtimes doesn't mean you can't have a special bath-story-snuggle routine in the evening, if your kids enjoy that. Not controlling screen time doesn't mean you can't all pile on the couch to watch The Big Bang Theory every Thursday, or House on Monday, or whatever your family enjoys. Not forcing your kids to eat breakfast doesn't mean you can't have a ritual cup of tea each morning (even if you have to sip it from a thermos while following a toddler around). If you have a routine-loving kid who needs to do X in the morning and Y in the afternoon and Z in the evening, by all means help make that happen! If your kid *wants* to do a math workbook page every day, give them a math workbook page every day! *Until* they don't want to anymore - then you let it go without a fuss. The difference between unschooling and other kinds of parenting is that nothing is forced, required, shamed or punished. That's it. So long as you're respecting and facilitating your kids' wants and needs, your family can structure life in any way that works for you, and it is Still Unschooling.

Unschooling doesn't mean the leaves don't change in the fall or the flowers don't bloom in the spring. It doesn't mean the sun doesn't rise in the east and set in the west, it doesn't make the Earth turn faster or slower (though on some of those late nights, you may not be sure). Unschooling doesn't mean you can't be the mom who knits her kids an ugly Weasley sweater* every Christmas - it only means you can't be the mom who gives your kid an ugly sweater *instead* of the Legos they wanted, and you can't force them to wear it. But if knitting the damn sweater (or other tradition your kids don't care about) makes you happy, do it! Just recognize who you're really doing it for, and allow your kids to opt out if they choose.

And if a tradition or ritual is making your family happy? Then keep it up, even if it feels silly. My mom and I kept dyeing Easter eggs until I was well into my 20s, because it was fun playing with the colors. I still make peanut butter and banana sandwiches on Elvis's birthday even though I'm not that big of a fan, just because we always did it when I was a kid. The actual meaning behind these activities is long gone, but they're still worth doing because they're still fun. When an activity is not meaningful *or* fun, that's when you throw it away and find something that suits your family better right now.

And finally, allow new rituals to pop up anytime. There was a period of time in 2009 where I got up at 5:00 every morning to watch Star Trek TNG (on DVD, so there was no concrete reason to be up this early) and eat breakfast, then went back to sleep. My mom was usually up during that time and would blearily watch along with me, then go back to sleep too. This went on for a few weeks and then stopped. This all sounds incredibly pointless from the outside, I know. But it was an important routine while it lasted, because it was predictable, comforting, and involved sharing an interest with my mom.

Make grilled cheese on Tuesdays, but be willing to cook spaghetti if your kids request it. Bake an apple pie on the first of every month. Wear pink socks every time you go to the doctor, if that amuses you. Why the hell not? Having fun and having routines don't have to be opposite goals. Saying no to fun because you haven't made room in your schedule - that's the thing you need to watch out for.

*Or ugly Wesley sweater? Nerd media is rife with ugly sweaters for you to choose from.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

70 Ways Unschoolers Learn to Deal With Frustration

One of the questions frequently lobbed at unschoolers is how kids who are "given everything they want" will ever learn to deal with frustration, as if saying "no" to things your kids know full well you can provide is some sort of exercise in character-building. (To me, this is the equivalent of asking how they will learn to deal with physical pain if you don't hit them, but I realize it is not generally meant with that level of malice.)

My parents never withheld anything from me that they were able to provide, and I promise, I have dealt with *plenty* of frustration. And I'm getting better at it - many of these things would have been the apocalypse to me, as a very sensitive child, but the more I live the more I learn how to laugh things off. I promise you, school and punishments are not how I learned this.

So, I am here to assure you that no matter how much you lovingly provide to your kids, they will still have to deal with this stuff:

1. Broken appliances

2. Broken computers

3. Rained-out picnics, park days, vacations, baseball games...

4. Not getting invited to parties

5. Video games you can't quite beat

6. Neighbors with small yap-type dogs

7. Rude people out in public

8. "Some assembly required"

9. Nightmares

11. The flu

12. Youtube comments

13. Long lines at the grocery store when you were ready to eat an hour ago

14. Pens that won't write until you scribble on every nearby surface and try to suck out the ink like a vampire

15. Not getting answers to emails

16. Having too many emails to answer

17. Basically any trip to the post office. (Goes double if you're not even the person needing to mail something.)

18. Check engine lights

19. "What do you mean, that was the last roll of toilet paper?"

20. Needing to pee while someone is in the shower

21. Boring Saturdays where you can't think of anything to do

22. Having to schedule time with schooled friends around their homework

23. Cat hair + favorite sweater

24. Favorite teddy bears that just can't be sewn up anymore

25. Not getting or losing a job when you've tried your hardest

26. Getting rejected or dumped when you've tried your hardest

27. Helium balloons that were let go prematurely

28. Depressing shit on the news

29. Any mention of politics

30. Being the last person to shower and having to take an ice-cold military shower

31. Pets that die, run away, or have to be given away

32. Contests entered and not won

33. Flat tires

34. Telemarketers

35. Clouds on the night of the meteor shower

36. That toy everyone wants for Christmas/Chanukah/whatever but it is completely sold out but how can you understand that when you're six?

37. Being too little to reach the light switch, see all the books on the shelf, pour your own juice, walk the doggie, help mommy carry stuff...

38. Being too young to drive a car, go out late at night, get a job, choose where you live, vote, have your opinions and feelings taken seriously by most people...

39. Bad first dates

40. Bad haircuts

41. Dealing with disabilities, illness, and injury

42. Dried-out magic markers

43. Power outages, phone outages, internet outages...

44. "If you are calling about a rabid badger attack, press 1. If your refrigerator mold has become sentient, press 2. For all other calls, please hold..."

45. Losing socks to the Underpants Gnomes

46. cl1ck here 2 make ur pen15 b1gger

47. Not making the team or passing an audition

48. Not realizing your favorite necklace/bracelet/earring that someone Very Important gave you is missing until you get home - from somewhere very large and crowded.

49. Queerphobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, fatphobia, classism, ableism, xenophobia...

50. Songs that get stuck in your head, forcing you to listen to them to make it stop, even if you hate them

51. Rubik's cubes, sudoku, crossword puzzles that keep making obscure 1940s movie references...

52. Tangled computer wires, ropes, and Christmas lights

53. "Thank you for calling [office]. Our office hours are [large span of time that definitely includes the time of the call]. Please leave a message and we will get back to you during regular business hours."

54. Not having more than two or three of your best friends concentrated in any one part of the country or world, so no matter where you go, you miss a lot of people

55. People who argue against unschooling by insisting that you, personally (or your good friends, personally) will Fail At Life

56. Being asked, "So, what do you do?" during a period of your life where what you're doing doesn't sound outwardly impressive. ("Um, I blog, and stuff...")

57. Your reed breaks right before a recital, your tights run on the way to a job interview, you get a charley horse right before the big game...

58. tryng 2 dciphr txt spk

59. "Hi, I noticed your hair looks like shit! Can I interrupt your shopping trip to straighten it?"

60. Puberty. And for people with uteruses, the ongoing joy of periods.

61. [Person you consider a good friend] likes [statement you find personally insulting] on <3

62. "Please allow 6-8 weeks for delivery"

63. Needing desperately to talk to a friend, but they're only allowed 15 minutes on the phone or an hour on the computer, No Exceptions.

64. Loud, persistent noises over which you have no control

65. Toothaches, headaches, stomachaches, growing pains...

66. Realizing a favorite DVD (or worse, video game) has an irreparable scratch only after you've become totally absorbed in it

67. Needing to leave the house FIVE MINUTES AGO and you/your parents CAN'T FIND THE KEYS

68. Being in the middle when two friends have a falling out

69. Those days where nothing sounds good to eat, nothing sounds fun to do, your clothes itch, everything is annoying, and nothing anyone says can make it right.

70. Losing a loved one

Artificial barriers not required. I promise.

(And I could've gone on longer. Feel free to post your own examples in the comments!)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

It Gets Better.

ACT I: Trapped

Scene I:

In a rural Southern middle school, a few dozen twelve-year-olds assemble in the science room before school hours, having been promised refreshments if they attend. It is a cold morning in a school with open hallways, and the allure of hot chocolate and central heat is strong. After all the students have settled with their snacks, the adult leading the Bible study group begins his speech.

"Now boys, just because you can't get a girlfriend doesn't mean you turn around and go get a boyfriend."

A sudden bolt of discomfort shoots through a kid sitting near the front. She shifts uncomfortably in her seat, wanting desperately to leave the room now that she knows the agenda, but fearing that if she expresses her objection, people will think it is because she is gay.

Scene II:

It gets worse.

It is late summer. A 14-year-old makes a phone call to the boy she has recently broken up with. "Yeah, the thing is... I think I'm a lesbian now." She doesn't know he has another friend silently eavesdropping via three-way call.

A group of tough-looking girls approaches her when school starts. "Are you a lesbian?" they demand.

"No, of course not!" she stammers in a blind panic.

"Why did you tell Joey you were?"

"I didn't! I'm not!" She does the only thing she can think to do, and escapes to the band room - the only room that is open before class. The bullies are not in band and can't follow her. She refuses to spend her mornings anywhere but the band room for the rest of the year, and she cannot tell her friends why.

Months later, in the lunch line, a classmate squints at her. "Are you a lesbian?"

"No!" she blurts out defensively, startled by the question.

"Oh. Well I heard some girl Bonnie was a lesbian."

"Wasn't me."

Scene III:

It gets worse.

A bunch of teenage girls float happily in a swimming pool late at night, after an evening of movies, truth or dare, and mixing up every soda in the house to see what it tastes like. The end result is called a "Suicide."

One of them gives a melancholy glance at a pretty friend of hers. She is seized immediately by guilt for thinking "perverted" thoughts and breaking the sacred trust of sleepovers. No boys are allowed, after all, because they will do just that. She is a wolf in sheep's clothing, sneaking among the flock. She sighs.

Her friend asks what's wrong.

"Oh, nothing really. I've just been... confused about some stuff, I guess." She knows better than to elaborate any further, but deep down, she wishes someone would recognize this as code for I'm queer and terrified to tell you. Someone who would be sensitive enough to tell her it's okay, and that she's not going to Hell.

That won't happen tonight.

After the swim, she accidentally walks in on a friend changing out of her bathing suit, and catches a glimpse of her breasts. She is wracked with guilt, not only for embarrassing her friend, but also for being turned on. Her friend thinks she has been seen only by an innocent straight girl - not a secret pervert.

ACT II: Majority

Scene I:

It gets better.

By some miracle, she finds a group of friends online, from places not so Southern and not so rural, who think being gay is just fantastic. One friend comes out as bisexual and says he likes to dress in drag. Another comes out as gay. Both are accepted by the others with open arms. She's stuffed her own sexuality down and stopped thinking about it, but the longer she's around these friends, she begins to wonder...

Scene II:

It gets better.

An 18-year-old locks her car and glances around nervously, wondering if anyone will see where she is going. She swallows the knot in her throat and clomps up the wood steps to the queer youth center. A cheerful man greets her and talks with her about her plans to get a GED. He seems to genuinely care, even though he's never met her before.

Later that evening, feeling at home among her kind, she performs a ridiculous camped-up version of "Baby Got Back", along with a boy she didn't know before, in the talent show. As the song ends, the other youth shower them with fake paper money, emblazoned with the faces of the youth center staff.

Scene III:

It gets worse.

While her boyfriend of two years is away at work, she clicks on the TV, and is suddenly enamoured by a beautiful woman in a commercial. God dammit, she thinks to herself, I thought those feelings were gone. Her boyfriend's greatest fear is being left for another woman. She wants him to feel secure, so she simply refers to herself as straight. After all, she's with a man now, so what's the difference?

But there is a difference, and it's never going to be okay with him. She gazes at the woman on TV, then frowns.

I'm going to have to leave him, she thinks as she changes the channel. Just... not now.

Act III: Emergence

Scene I:

It gets better.

Feeling inspired by a friend's recent coming out and an impassioned speech by Harvey Fierstein on TV, she makes an announcement to all her friends via a somewhat flowery blog post on MySpace. Not one single person unfriends her or attempts to tear her down. The worst she will have to deal with is a few tokenizing friends-of-friends who expect her to make out with girls at parties - annoying, but not dangerous. Mostly she receives complete support.

She realizes it is only this way because she's spent years carefully sifting and weeding her group of friends until it contains only people who will respect who she is.

Scene II:

It gets better.

She stands in the kitchen, silent. Now, cries something deep inside her. Do it now.

Nuh uh, no way, says her mind, but her voice acts of its own volition.

"I think I might be gay", she stammers, seemingly out of nowhere.

Her quiet, conservative, Southern Baptist mother pauses for not even a moment before flinging her arms around her. "Oh honey, I thought you might be. It's okay! You can even still have kids if you really want! I mean, I'd rather you be gay than be out drinking or something!"

She grins, hugs her mom, and makes a mental note not to put any Smirnoff in the fridge.

Scene III:

It gets better.

She's not sure what to expect, walking into the unschooling conference for the first time. She wants desperately to be liked by these people, but she knows most of the people there will be straight couples with kids. She doesn't realize there will be families with two moms. She also doesn't realize one of those families runs the conference.

For the first time in her life, she is able to be freely and openly queer without a single worry about what anyone will say. All the friends she makes here will be people who know, people she doesn't have to fear losing later When They Find Her Out.

One of her new friends, proudly and unapologetically queer and transgender, balks when she makes clear that she cannot get any job, anywhere, if her employers know she is queer. Another friend, one of the lesbian moms running the conference, reminds her she cannot even adopt if she continues to live in Florida.

"Move up north," they both insist. "Massachusetts is so much better."

A year later, she's hopping a train in Boston, on her way to join some new friends for a queer-friendly board game night. A hand-beaded rainbow bracelet glimmers on her wrist, a gift from one of those gay internet friends of her teen years. She doesn't even think of hiding here.

She has found the friends who will love who she is. She has found the surroundings that make her feel free and safe.

It's better.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I was just thinking today about some of the stuff that's gone down this year, and how I totally wouldn't have been ready for it a year ago.

In 2010, I have moved away from home. Really moved, not down the street, not into the city where I can drive home when I get homesick, but moved away. A thousand miles away. I've also dealt with some friend-situations I might not have handled well a year before, like two mutual friends having a messy breakup and getting back together. Currently I'm watching a good friend go through something I can't publicly discuss, but were it not for the things I've learned this year, I wouldn't have been ready to be there for them. And I've dealt with some internal changes and epiphanies I wasn't ready for in 2009.

Ah, but then in 2009, I gave up a well-paying job because it wasn't healthy for me, I began spending lots of time around unschoolers, and I lost my mom. I wasn't ready for those things in 2008. (I wasn't ready to lose my mom ever, but if it had happened in 2008, things would have been a lot, lot, lot worse.)

And what of you, 2008? I spent two weeks in Arizona, I sorta-halfway had a girlfriend, I became part of the unschooling community, gave up my dreams of being a teacher because I realized they were in conflict with my values, then (perhaps hypocritically) I went back into the school system as a teacher's aide, working a really challenging job that I could NOT have done in 2007...

...a year in which I came out of the closet, worked in an office, finished my AA degree, lived in a dorm, lost a favorite great-aunt, and worked as a caregiver for a kid with severe disabilities, who died just as I was getting to know him. Definitely couldn't have handled that stuff in 2006...

...when I broke up with my then-boyfriend, got my first paying job, became a Unitarian-Universalist, and accepted myself once-and-for-all as queer. I wasn't ready for that stuff in 2005.

Have these years been easy? Not really.

Were they painful? Extremely.

Were they fun? Oh hell yes.

But what stands out to me the most is that, when I follow my instincts and my interests, they almost always lead me to the tools and resources I will need to deal with the next challenge.

Even when I'm not exactly where I want to be, I am Exactly Where I Need To Be. I am always growing, always learning.

And so are you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

No sir, no bloggin' today

Okay, I know "hey sorry for not blogging lol btw I'm still not blogging" posts are lame, but I also don't like to just disappear off the face of the Earth without warning. So this is your official "I don't feel like writing, for which I am sort of half-apologizing even though I don't actually feel sorry about it" post.

What's my life looking like right now? It looks like a whole lot of reading, taking shit in, bouncing all around Boston on the train, adjusting to a new place, looking for a job, typical young adult "where the hell is my life going to go" angst, lookin' at webcomics, hanging out with awesome people and eating large quantities of Chinese food.

Pretty standard 25-year-old stuff, yeah?

My writing has also mostly turned to other subjects and formats and forums (fora?). Oddly, I've been writing poetry (I say "oddly" because I typically don't like poetry), which is mostly too personal to share here, and I'm also making tentative plans for NaNoWriMo. So my energies are being poured elsewhere.

Fear not, gentle readers, I am not breaking up with you. I will probably still write here when the urge strikes me. (Given my proclivities toward fickleness, that may well be tomorrow.) But right now, I just don't have a whole lot to say.

Friday, September 17, 2010

We Don't Need to Escalate: 12 Steps to Heading Off a Crisis

I wrote this several months ago in a discussion about aggression on a local unschooling list. It's written from my point of view at about age 14, which is when my temper was the worst, so some parts may not work quite as well with younger kids. Some may be particular to me and not apply to kids with different personalities. Still, I wanted to provide some perspective on what it's like for the kid who has lost control of their emotions, how scary it is for them, and what they might need in order to get them through to a better place.

Ultimately, the best cure for a crisis is prevention. Watch the signs that your kids are getting frustrated with things, do a HALT check (hungry, angry, lonely, tired), and try to solve problems before they reach the fight-or-flight stage. But if they do reach that point - and it happens sometimes, especially with kids who are highly sensitive or have difficulty communicating their needs - these steps should help.

(The first bit is in response to a question about where to draw the line in terms of kids who are trying to fight one another.)


A great thing that Sandra Dodd always says is that the other child, the victim, has a right to feel safe in their own home. The aggressive child's "right" to be aggressive does not outweigh the other child's right to safety and peace. (The same applies to other adults in the house, of course.) So that is where the line should be drawn, I think, with regards to how much you tolerate.

However, that's about the expression of aggression, and I think it's important not to confuse the expression with the emotion behind it. You can communicate to the child that specific actions are not acceptable (a simple "Don't hit me/her/him!" is what I'd use - as opposed to "We don't hit" or "That was mean!" or things like that) while still validating their feelings. Usually a person who is behaving aggressively is flooded with adrenaline and cannot think clearly in that moment. They cannot think ahead to what consequences their actions will have. What we learn as we get older is how to slow that adrenaline flow, to breathe and calm ourselves down before we react. That's really hard for a kid!

When I was younger, I had a very bad temper, and often felt like I was going insane when I got angry. If I could have written a set of guidelines for people to follow when my anger reached "crisis" levels, it would have looked like this:

1. Don't ask me questions or talk too much. I am already overstimulated and more input will only make it worse, and in this state I cannot organize my thoughts into words.

2. Do not touch me, or any object I was just holding or using, unless you must do so to protect me or someone else. I may want a hug when I calm down, but if you come too close when I am raging, I will perceive it as a threat. My instinct will be to get you away from me in whatever way is necessary, no matter how much I love you.

3. Do not, under any circumstances, tell me that the reason I am angry is not a good enough reason to be angry. Don't tell me, in the heat of my anger, that I am being irrational, even if I am. Invalidating my feelings will only make me much, much angrier.

4. My adrenaline rises with the volume of your voice.

5. Make it clear to me that you still love me. I am just as frightened and unhappy about what is going on as you are, and I'm terrified that I will not be forgiven. If you make me feel like a terrible person for being angry, or you threaten me in some way, that only adds to my fear. Fear compounds anger.

6. Now is not the time for problem-solving. The thing that made me angry is no longer the problem. The anger is the problem. Once I have calmed down, we can solve the original problem, but not before.

7. I need to get this anger out. I simply cannot sit and stew in it. I need to yell, I may need to stomp, and I may need to physically destroy something (giving me some old magazines to rip is a good idea). If there is another person in the house who cannot handle my reaction then we need to be in separate rooms until I have calmed down.

8. Since I cannot think clearly in this moment, I need you to protect me from doing things I will regret. Don't allow me to injure people or pets, destroy anything that has value to me or others, or say things that will not be forgiven. Again, you may need to separate me from others and simply be alone with me until I am calm.

9. If I want to be alone, respect that. But do not force me to be alone against my will. I am frightened of my own anger and will become much more frightened if I feel caged and abandoned.

10. When I finally calm down (which happens remarkably quickly when all escalating stimuli are removed), I will be feeling trauma from the emotional stress we all just went through, fear that I may have made everyone hate me, shame and frustration with myself for losing control, and physical exhaustion from the adrenaline storm. *This* is the time when I need a hug - a long, close, "everything is okay, just breathe with me" hug. I will probably be sobbing at this point. Know that you are not rewarding my actions by comforting me - I am deeply remorseful at this point. You are giving me the security of knowing I can trust you in my very worst moments, and that is something I desperately need.

11. After I have stopped crying, washed my face, had a cool drink, and we've all laughed together, I'll be able to handle some gentle problem solving. After we've all been emotionally "emptied out", so to speak, it will be easy to talk through what happened and figure out what we could do differently next time. After what we've just been through, we'll all be eager to remember a better solution so it doesn't get this bad again.

12. At this point, one of two things should happen: Either I or the other people involved will be exhausted and want to be alone, or we will be eager to bond again to prove to each other that everything's okay. This is a good time for a quiet board game or a lighthearted movie together, some cuddle time, and some ice cream.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Alas, a meme

My last post was all bitter and angry, so I decided to balance that out with a nice friendly meme, which came from Olivia.

Books I've read recently or am reading now:
I've been too busy to read much since I got to Boston, but over the summer I read My Gender Workbook, Wishcraft, some of The Impossible Will Take A Little While, and I kept trying to start Lord of the Rings but I think I just need to give up and accept that Tolkein's writing style is not for me.

8 Songs or Albums I listen to all the time:
"Call and Answer" by Barenaked Ladies
"I Palindrome I" by They Might Be Giants
"Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
"Giant" by Melissa Etheridge
"The Great Beyond" by R.E.M.
"One Man's Dream" by Yanni
"Trinity" by Paper Tongues
"Hallelujah" by Rufus Wainwright

8 Things I love:
My friends
Chinese food
Hula hooping
The Venture Bros.
Nerds (the people, but I also enjoy the candy)

8 Things I've learned this year:
It's stupid to try to get through life without other people.
If your gut is telling you to be somewhere, go there, even if you can't come up with a good explanation for why you're doing it.
Having a vagina does not obligate me to do anything.
If you are friends with both members of a couple and they break up, stay the hell out of that shit.
I don't need to fret over "not having a family" or the fact that my kids won't have grandparents and aunts and uncles and stuff, because I have lots of awesome people in my life and that is what matters.
If a person makes you uncomfortable and you can't place why, it may be your gut trying to tell you something.
Anger is a perfectly rational response to bullshit.
Love is a good thing, even if it's not in the form you'd prefer.

8 new recipes I want to try and make by the end of the year:
Mehhh I don't cook much really. My roommate makes some kickass lentil soup, I should learn to make that.

8 Favorite online hangouts:
Wherever the party's at, man

8 Projects I need to work on:
Getting a jeeerb
Attempting to salvage my Dell by installing Ubuntu on it
Figuring out how to make my stupid Gateway actually burn the Ubuntu CD
Somehow purchasing an entire winter wardrobe
Relearning sign language
Writing a post on "giftedness"
Compiling a list of books I wanna read
Learning some new hoop tricks

*I am pretty sure there was another thing I'm supposed to do and I can't remember what it was and now that is making me nervous

8 people I think should do this tag:
The ghost of Elvis
The one-armed man
Slim Goodbody
Sir Ian McKellen
Hermione Granger
My dog
LeVar Burton

but none of them read my blog, so I'll have to settle for you people. If you feel like it :p

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What NOT having privilege feels like

There's a lot of talk among social activists about privilege, and what precisely privilege is. There are many privilege checklists you can use to see the ways in which society may automatically favor you over someone else (or favor someone else over you.) A simple Google search for white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, thin privilege or cis privilege should get you plenty of info about what it means to have privilege, from people more eloquent and well-versed on the subject than I.

I want to talk about what it means not to have privilege.

I am a white, English-speaking adult citizen of the United States, and none of my disabilities are outwardly visible.

That is where my privilege ends.

I grew up on welfare, raised by a mother who had multiple disabilities. I am queer, non-Christian, female-bodied, clinically obese, and currently unemployed. I am almost certainly somewhere on the autism spectrum, and I have medical problems that deplete my spoons. I have a hormone condition which means I will never appear "feminine", so that the mere act of cutting my hair prompts what the fuck are you stares on the train.

There are a lot of people who think the world would be a better place if I did not exist.

Let me repeat that, for people who have enough privilege that they don't know what that's like. I am inundated, constantly, with messages that say, underhandedly but quite clearly, you should not exist. Every day, I have to dodge news reports discussing the "obesity epidemic" as though the size of my ass is equivalent to the fucking bubonic plague. Every day I have to deal with people saying women who aren't thin enough, pretty enough, or feminine enough are worthless as human beings. Every day I have to deal with people saying I am going to hell, or that I want "special rights" when I have merely asked for the same rights as other people. Every day I have to see parents or expectant parents carry on as though having a child like me - or like my mother - would be the worst thing that could ever possibly happen to them. Every day I have to see shit on Facebook about how if you can afford cigarettes, you don't need food stamps, which implies that because my mother became addicted to cigarettes before I was ever thought of, I should have starved to death as a child. I get THAT one from my friends. My friends.

Do I think my friends are actively thinking "Golly, I sure wish Bonnie was dead" when they click on stuff like that? Of course not. But what they ARE thinking is that people on food stamps do not deserve the full freedom of choice in life that people who aren't on food stamps deserve, as if freedom to choose how to spend one's money only comes with a certain income level. And you cannot believe someone should have less freedom than you without, at least subconsciously, believing that they are somehow less of a person than you. You can't.

And that is what lack of privilege feels like. Knowing that people - even people who are supposed to love you - think you are less of a person than they are.

Knowing there are people who view you not as a human being, but as some kind of political rallying tool, an example of the "problems" in your country or the world.

Knowing there are people who think, at least in some theoretical sense, that the world would be better if you were never in it. Or if you died right now.

And knowing that you cannot defend yourself, because you will either be told to "lighten up", or have someone's political beliefs thrown in your face, as though they were more important than whether or not you feel that you deserve to be alive.

Ever feel like that? Like nobody wants you? Like the world would be better off if you just crawled into a hole somewhere?

Was it fun?

That's why talking about privilege is important. Because ultimately, this isn't about me. It's about the fact that whatever ways I may be different, there are lots and lots of other people who are different in the same ways. They don't deserve to feel like that. Neither do I.

And don't read this and come tell me how much you love me. I'm not writing all this because I'm sad. I'm writing it because I'm fucking pissed, and I'm tired of being made to feel like shit and then pretending everything is fine for politeness' sake. Everything is not fine. Making me feel like dirt is not fine. Making other people feel like dirt is not fine. I only have so many spoons. I only have so much time to spend with people, and I'd rather spend it with people who affirm and validate me, people who don't view me and people like me as symbols of Everything Wrong In The World.

This is dedicated

To those who've lost a loved one they're not sure how to live without...

To those who've been told, directly or indirectly, that their bodies are unloveable...

To all the kids being bullied in the schools that are supposed to be "good for you"...

...and the kids for whom school is a refuge from the pain at home...

To anyone who's been emotionally, sexually, or physically abused, and those who are being abused even now...

To the gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, trans, genderqueer, intersex, polyamorous, sexually-confused, gender-confused people who've been told they are unacceptable or morally corrupt...

To the black kids in the city who've been told they'll never amount to anything...

...and the black adults who remember when things were much worse...

To the legal, and illegal, immigrants being used as scapegoats for every problem in the United States, and treated as though you were not fully human...

To all those whose ethnicity, religion, skin color or nationality renders them Less Than in somebody's eyes...

To the people whose lives depend on SSI, food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, and all the other programs derisively lumped together as "welfare" and treated as a "problem" by people who can afford BMWs...

To the people who are unemployed, and must live with the shame dumped on unemployed people even when that represents 10% of the adult population...

To the people whose bodies and minds don't work the same way as "everybody else's" (as if everyone else's bodies and minds worked the same way)...

To the girls being told their job is to be a pretty face and nothing else...

To those struggling with addictions and compulsions...

To those keeping secrets they fear would make everyone stop loving them...

To those who've survived natural disasters, fires, terrorist attacks, wars, and other kinds of hell-on-earth...

To those going through the breakup of a family, or the breakup of a relationship...

To those who love someone they can't be with...

To those who don't have any "serious" problems, but just can't seem to find the joy in life...

To those who hurt themselves because it's the only way to hurt a little bit less...

This is for you.

September 5-11, 2010

There is hope.
Hopeline: 1-800-SUICIDE

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Day in Back Bay

I've been in Boston for over two weeks now, and I haven't really written anything about it! Probably because the first week was the "be totally overwhelmed and confused" phase of moving, and the second week was the "spend five days at a conference and two days recovering" phase. (You mean you don't go through that phase when you move?) But now I'm starting to settle in, and yesterday for the first time I took public transport all by myself! I'm a big kid now! (People who grew up in real cities are probably laughing at me, but the extent of public transport in Jacksonville was a bus system that basically only gets you from one Walmart to the next, and a useless monorail that was built during the Every City Needs A Useless Monorail trend some years back, so I never took a city bus or train till I came to Boston.)

What was the big occasion that led me to venture into the city by myself? Church, yo. Specifically a 400-year-old church founded by this guy:

Yes, that John Winthrop. Which is amusing, given that it is a Unitarian-Universalist church now:

The inside of the church wasn't too remarkable, because part of it burned down in the '60s and had to be rebuilt, but the outside was way cool:

The service itself was lovely, something to do with Labor Day and the Walmart effect and what it means to do useful, fulfilling work - I'm not really a morning person so I'll admit a lot of it went over my head, but I got to hear a guy playing a harpsichord in person, and that is all that matters.

Back Bay is an upscale, historic neighborhood that's really pleasant to walk through, full of gorgeous old brownstones, brick sidewalks and cute little gardens.

After church I decided to wander over to the library and see if it's open on Sundays (it isn't), and on the way there I stopped at the Commonwealth Avenue mall. (Mall as in "long, narrow park", not "place where you drink an Orange Julius and wish you had money".)

One thing I like about Boston is there are statues everywhere, so whenever I go out I always come home with some names to Google. As a history geek, this pleases me.

William Lloyd Garrison, a damn cool guy who I hadn't heard of till I saw his statue

Not sure who this was, but he looks rather unfriendly.

My favorite thing was the Boston Women's Memorial, right in the middle of the park:

Remember the Ladies

I like Abigail's posture here. She's all like, "The Leggs of a Lady are none of your fucking Business, John."

Inscription on Lucy Stone's memorial

After the park, I walked over by the library and took some pictures there:

Old South Church

This entire building, including the bit hidden behind the tree, is the library. Oh baby.

I will DEFINITELY be coming back here.

This is the sign on a weird "city toilet" thing outside the library. You can't really see the text, but essentially it says that you insert a quarter, and the thing (which looks like some kind of alien space pod) opens up, and you get 20 minutes to desecrate it. After 20 minutes, the door automatically opens. So if you're anticipating a major colon blowout or something, find a real bathroom. There's also a lot of instructions on it about how to call 911 by pushing a button inside, which I thought was slightly ominous.

So, I'm digging Boston so far! Lots of cool historical shit, lots of cool people, lots of cool, uh, donuts - and it's gonna be fall soon! Yay!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Don't Do It

To this I would add that discrimination absolutely does include "jokes" and those stupid things people "like" on Facebook. Just because you're kidding doesn't mean it doesn't hurt.

(Please note I am not necessarily endorsing all of the language choices the person who created the poster has made, but I do think it's a really fucking useful poster overall.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Leaving Narnia: What to do when someone comes out of the closet

At the Northeast Unschooling Conference this past weekend, my good friend Michael gave a talk, which he asked me to help with, on what to do when someone you love comes out of the closet. (The topic was Kathryn Baptista's idea, and a great one I think, so props to her for that!) For several reasons it ended up being a small group, which was fine, because that gave everyone who wanted to say something a chance to do so. But since I feel it's such an important topic, I wanted to write down some of the things we talked about and maybe some things we didn't get to talk about, for those who didn't get to be there.

I wanted to write that. The thing is, every time I sit down to write any kind of guide to what to do or what not to do, what comes out is this really long ungainly list of specific mistakes I've made, specific mistakes other people have made, specific things people did for me that were wonderful, specific things I did for others which went over well, etc. Accept asexuality as a valid sexual orientation. Don't say "fag" or "tranny" or "dyke". Don't ask people how they have sex. I quickly realized that if I were to make this anywhere close to comprehensive, it was going to take a year to read.

Then I caught myself. My list was becoming ungainly because I was making a list of rules. Generally, anytime a list of ways you should or shouldn't act gets to many, many items long, that's a red flag that you're approaching it from a mindset of rules rather than principles. Unschoolers tend to emphasize that the problem with rules is how constricting and frustrating they are, how they ignore the needs people are trying to express. But an even more fundamental problem with rules is that they simply cannot cover every situation that could come up. In the same way that "no hitting" still leaves you plenty of room to kick, bite, or verbally abuse, "don't ask people how they have sex" still leaves you plenty of room to ask what their genitals look like or ask their ex-partner how they have sex. Making rules, even ones designed to be adopted voluntarily, is a bit like cutting the head off a hydra. For every problem you address, several more spring up in its stead. If a guide is based on rules, there can be no workable abridged version.

So I took a step back from my list of rules and tried to find the principles behind them. Most of these could be broadened quite a bit more - "respect people" would just about cover it - but in order to show how they specifically apply to a person coming out of the closet, I've tried to find a middle ground between abstract principles and detailed examples. (This may still take a year to read, but it will be a much more helpful year *grin*).

1. Every person gets to define hirself. You know a guy who dated three women last year, but now says he's gay? He's gay. Your friend was a girly-girl in elementary school, but now identifies as a transgender man? He's a transgender man. Someone you met at a party says they're asexual, and all your biology training tells you that's a method of reproduction? Science be damned, it's a sexual orientation now. A person you know has come out as every sexual orientation under the sun, and you're not sure whether to believe them next time? Believe them anyway. Your friend has asked to be referred to using pronouns you could swear they (or ze, or xie, or sie) made up? Use them. Above all, trust that people know the insides of their own minds better than you do - even if their minds change over time.

2. Every person has a right to as much (or as little) privacy as they desire. Just because your friend is out to everyone you know doesn't mean ze's out to hir parents or coworkers. Just because your friend is extremely proud of being queer doesn't mean you should necessarily talk about it on the train or yell "homo" in a crowded theater. By the same token, I don't get to ask my friend to cover up his transgender tattoo because I'm uncomfortable having that conversation with someone who might see it. I don't get to forbid my daughter from telling grandma about her girlfriend. Disclosure is the queer person's choice to make, not yours.

3. LGBTetc. people are just people. If someone comes out to you, remember they were queer or trans before you knew, and they are still the same person now (though the coming out process may liberate or grow them in lots of ways). Knowing about a person's queerness need not change anything about your relationship with them (though your reaction may harm or strengthen the relationship). If you would never ask a question of a cis or straight person, don't ask it of a trans or queer person. Having a gay or trans friend is not a novelty or a symbol of how cool you are, anymore than having a redheaded or left-handed friend is. And remember that being queer or trans is only one aspect of who someone is. True, some people are "culturally lesbian" or "culturally trans" or whatever, and are way involved with queer stuff, but even then they are still individuals with their own habits, hobbies, interests and personalities, many of which will have not a damn thing to do with their gender or sexuality.

4. Everyone wants to feel safe. Unfortunately even in this day and age, lots of queer people, and particularly lots of trans people, do not feel safe in lots of situations, or only feel safe if their sexuality or gender identity is well-hidden. Anything you can do to make a person feel safe - whether you know them to be LGBTetc. or not - will be appreciated. This includes honoring their privacy as discussed above, but it also includes things like not tolerating homophobic or transphobic jokes, and avoiding heteronormative or cissexist language and assumptions (i.e., asking people when they're going to get married/have a baby, assuming your tomboyish friend would enjoy a free makeover, etc.) That last one takes practice, because certain assumptions are so deeply ingrained in Western culture, but the payoff in terms of the other person's comfort is well worth it, especially if the other person happens to be your child. Even if you can't change the mind of everyone you meet (and you can't), standing up for queer and trans people communicates to us that even if we're not safe with any of the other people in the room, we are safe with you. I am not exaggerating one bit when I say that there are people for whom having just one person who doesn't think they're sick or a sinner is the difference between life and death. Even if someone never comes out to you, just knowing you wouldn't condemn them if they did can quite literally save their life.

5. Everyone knows someone who is queer or trans. Michael's talk was somewhat ambiguously titled, and so lots of people came in the room, asked us what it was about, and politely but quickly left the room. I don't begrudge people one bit for choosing an activity more in line with their interests, but I also got a sense that many of these people's lack of interest in the topic came from a sense that this doesn't really apply to them. I can pretty well guarantee that unless you live in Upper Glennbeckistan, the topic of what to do when someone comes out absolutely applies to you. (And even if you do happen to live in Upper Glennbeckistan, the topic of what to do when someone is outed to the media by their former poolboy applies to you. Also, say hi to my family for me?) If you are a parent, this topic really really really applies to you. Even if your kid is two, because lots of people "feel different" from an extremely young age. The point is, no matter who you are, someone you know is not straight, or at least is questioning their sexual orientation. Someone you know is not cis, or at least is questioning their gender identity. If you wait till you know someone is not straight or not cis before you start thinking about how to accept them that way, you've waited too long. They already were who they are. I don't think it's ever too late to learn how to be kind to LGBTetc. people... but it's absolutely never, ever too early - especially, I will reiterate, if you have or are planning to have kids.

6. Every person has hir own story. I suppose this could be an addendum to #3, but I think it deserves a mention of its own. There are lots of wonderful books, movies and documentaries out there which tell the stories of queer and trans people. (There are also lots of not-so-wonderful ones, so watch out for that!) I would highly recommend the film Ma Vie En Rose and the book And the Band Played On, for example. But I would also caution anyone who seeks those out to realize they are not necessarily telling my story, or my friends' stories, or any of your friends' stories, or your kid's story. By the same token, your best friend's story, straight from the horse's mouth, is not my story, nor is my story hirs. True, another person's story may share elements with mine, and may give you a jumping-off point to understand my story. But the thing to remember is that knowing someone else's story does not mean that you know mine. Knowing how someone else feels doesn't mean you know how I feel. Accept that you don't know a queer or trans person's story until they tell it to you, just as you don't know a cis or straight person's story until they tell you.

7. People need people. Often, what an LGBTetc. person needs most is to be around other LGBTetc. people, but sometimes those who have just come out don't yet know where to find people like them. Here's a few of my personal favorite resources you could connect them with:

  • AVEN - Deals primarily with asexuality, but there's much discussion of sexuality in general, and their wiki has the most comprehensive information on gender identity I've found so far.
  • Scarleteen - Particularly for teens and young adults, but the advice is good for anyone.
  • Genderfork - An overall celebration of gender variance and gender rebellion.
  • Livejournal, which has many, many communities covering LGBT topics.
  • Books: Kate Bornstein's My Gender Workbook and Kimeron Hardin's The Gay and Lesbian Self-Esteem Book are good starting points. Do use caution, however, in giving people books, particularly people whose living situation may be jeopardized if a parent or roommate found a queer-themed book among their possessions.
  • PFLAG/TNET - You need support too, right? Plus, who doesn't love a PFLAG mom? You will get so many hugs.
  • And of course, any local LGBT community centers, support groups, pride festivals, or welcoming religious organizations (if they're interested in that) you can connect them with would be a huge help. (If you're in the Jacksonville, FL area, I've had wonderful experiences with JASMYN.)

Lastly and most importantly: If the person coming out to you is suicidal, do not attempt to save them all by yourself. Your support is undoubtedly important to them, but it is not fair to you, or to them, for you to be their only means of support. Let them know you're there for them and you love them unconditionally, but also try to move them in the direction of seeking help from those who have been trained to help them. This isn't just for your sake, but for theirs - if you don't know what you're doing, you may unintentionally make it worse, no matter how much you love them. One resource I've found extremely helpful is Metanoia's suicide page, which has probably saved my life more than once. In the United States, there are also several hotlines a person can call, such as the Hopeline (1-800-SUICIDE) (which also saved my life) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK). Finally, Metanoia's guide to helping a person who may be suicidal and their list of suicide warning signs are excellent. It would be a good idea in general to post some or all of these resources near your phone or computer so you can easily give them to someone in the event of a crisis.

I don't pretend that this list covers everything you could possibly need to know in order to deal with someone coming out. Every person is an individual, with individual needs. Every person has their own idea of what a perfect coming out would look like - some people will want you to sit and talk with them for a long time, others may prefer more of a "That's cool. Can you pass the salt?" response. Follow their lead. If they seem uncomfortable, think about what you could do differently. Ask them if they'd like to talk about it. Respect it if they'd rather not. Above all, know that even if you make mistakes, your support means the world to the person you love. Knowing that someone is at least trying to make me feel loved and safe will always make me feel more loved and safe than if they just didn't try at all.

Update: Even more trans-specific resources (thanks Michael!)

T-Vox (which lists many, many other resources)

I kind of wish I knew more gay and lesbian specific resources, because my interests and my immediate circle of friends tend to skew me heavily toward the transgender, bi/pan/queer, and asexual sides of things (which is a lot of sides of things, as it is! Phew!) So if anyone knows any really good resources for gay men and lesbians, please contact me and I will be happy to add those.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Will somebody invent a time-turner already?

I just got back last night from the 2010 Northeast Unschooling Conference. Because this is my favorite conference, I really want to say something about it, but I feel lost for words. Maybe that's because I haven't fully recovered from the lack of sleep and regular meals yet, or maybe it's because I just spent five solid days talking to a bunch of my favorite people and my words are all used up. Last year I came away with lots of new ideas and theories and navel-gazing things. This year, all I can offer is gratitude.

Things I'm really, really grateful for:

Kathryn, Beth, Julian, Jean, and everyone else who worked so hard on this thing to make it completely awesome, and were willing to give sleeping space and picnic transportation to lots of people.

Living thirty minutes, or an hour, or three hours, or eight hours away from people who I used to live no-fucking-way-in-hell far away from.

People who will happily give you a floor, a sandwich, or a ride most of the way home when you can't pay for any of them.

Early morning chats over accidentally-stolen coffee, and late night chats about stuff you just can't always mention in front of the sun.

Getting smiles and waves and hugs from people who were strangers until just moments ago.

Little kids who freely play, dance, express their feelings and their creativity, and go out of their way to find your watch and give it back to you when you drop it in the stairwell.

Friends who are willing to clean all the things, sing about bananas, make genetic waffles, pluck the still-beating hearts from squirrels*, shout about vajazzles and double dingos, find friends for Zombie Steve, and treat sandwiches like the serious business they are.

And lots and lots of other stuff! I won't say the conference was perfect, because nothing in life ever is. But it was sublime and supreme and lots of other superlative kinds of words, and listing every single thing I'm grateful for would take as long as recapping every minute of the conference. I think my only regret is that there wasn't nearly enough time to spend with everyone I wanted to see! The hardest part of a conference, besides saying goodbye, is being torn between wanting to spend as much time as possible with your closest friends, and wanting to make new ones. So until somebody gives me a time-turner so I can rewind and do multiple things at once, I'm gonna walk away from every conference with a little bit of regret for the things and the people I missed. But mostly, I'm just really fucking grateful to love and be loved by so many people that I can't see them all in five days.

*No actual squirrels were harmed in the course of this conference or the making of this blog post.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

(Not) Back to College

In less than a week, I will join thousands of other young adults in a traditional American ritual. I will cram my car full of as much crap as it will possibly hold, drive clear across the country to a place I have visited only once before, and move into a tiny room with another young adult. Sounds pretty familiar, right?

What makes my journey different is that I'm not going to college. The confluence of my transition with back-to-school time is a coincidence. I'm going, instead, to live in a pretty interesting neighborhood of Boston, with a friend and her family. And though this living situation will bear little actual similarity to college life, I think it's an interesting comparison. Because even though I won't have the curriculum of a formal program of study, the city has its own curriculum for me.

I will be studying:
  • Diversity, both ethnic (I will be staying with a Haitian family, in a neighborhood in which my friend says "you can walk down the street and hear five arguments in four different languages") and religious (Catholics and Muslims and Jews, oh my!)
  • Politics. I'll be going from a very conservative town to a very liberal one, which raises questions: What are the dynamics which make a city that is 40% Catholic also be 80% liberal? How do politics color the culture of a city? It'll be interesting to observe this stuff, especially with a major election around the bend.
  • History. Lots and lots and lots of history in Massachusetts. (Lots in Florida too, but the Massachusetts kind doesn't stir up so many icky feelings about my slaveholding ancestors, and is thus more enjoyable for me.)
  • Architecture. Nearly 50% of houses in Boston were built prior to 1939. Cool!
  • Weather. I've lived in Florida my whole life. 'Nuff said.
  • City Life. I am but a humble country mouse. Public transportation, knowing how to navigate on foot, personal safety - this stuff is new to me. Plus, I'll be exposed to all kinds of cool cultural stuff that Jacksonville, being more "America's most bloated suburb" than an actual city, does not have.
  • Diplomacy. I will be living in close quarters with a friend. That is always a learning experience in itself.

All of this is in addition to the things I will learn pursuing work and leisure, dealing with autism and chronic illness, and being a queer geek, just as I would anywhere else.

"Ah," say the naysayers, "but if you were going away to college in a new city, you'd learn all that plus a curriculum! So you're still missing out!" Oh, ye of little faith. First of all, I have lived on a college campus before, and I can say from experience that I am the sort of person who would simply cocoon myself up in campus life and never go exploring in the city. Second, anyone who knows me also knows that hellfire and dragons couldn't keep me from academic learning. I react to libraries the way Blanche Devereaux reacts to cheesecake. Third, if I were doing a formal full-time curriculum I would not have the time or inclination to sit and ponder about Catholicism and the Salem witch trials and the difference between sleet and freezing rain.

But most importantly, I will be learning about politics and history and diversity and architecture and the changing seasons because those are my interests. Those are the elements, in addition to friendship and good timing, that attracted me to a place like Boston in the first place. Were I not interested in those things, I probably wouldn't spend time thinking about them, and I may not have been excited to go to Boston in the first place. And none of those interests were sparked in me by any curriculum. Some of them were very nearly ruined by curricula, and even with the ones that weren't, I have never found a program of formal study that would satisfy my craving for them in just the right way. Going into a history program and studying whatever history they tell you to study, when your passion is for a specific aspect or period of history, is quite like going into a bakery and ordering a slice of lemon meringue pie when you were craving chocolate cake. You're in the right ballpark, but man, when you need chocolate cake, nothing else will do. You just can't enjoy that lemon pie like you would if you'd really been wanting it. Learning is very much the same.

So I'm gaining a lot of benefits I wouldn't necessarily have in college. As for what I'm missing? Let's see... there's the thousands of dollars worth of debt, the experience of living with a complete stranger who might steal your stuff or have sex on your bed, the pressure to join a sorority, the bad cafeteria food, the feeling of being babysat all the time despite being a legal adult... Oh yeah, and the Almighty Piece of Paper. Fine. If I decide I want one of those, I can get it. But for now, all the other benefits of college are coming to me, at far less cost, and in ways that are not artificially constructed by people who have never met me, yet claim to know what I need. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Why I am a socially awkward geek


Stage One: Excited Yammering

"Hi I heard you like Mudkips!"
"OMG I LOVE MUDKIPS! They're so like, blue!"
"Yes! And water Pokemon are the best!"
"I love Lapras!
"Yes! Lapras!"

Stage Two: Running Out of Steam

"So, um, I had a sandwich today..."
"Oh, cool. What kind?"

Stage Three: Person Says Thing Which Most People Would Have No Problem Responding To But I Have No Idea What in The Hell to Say

"There's a great sandwich place near my house."

Stage Four: Awkward Silence

[agonizing 30-second pause which seems more like 30 minutes and I am wondering if the other person hates me now because I didn't engage their sandwich thing, and now I'm not sure where to put my eyes so I end up staring into space and looking like I am about to start drooling and then I suddenly realize that and I get all self-conscious and stare at my shoes instead]

Next is the stage which is sometimes referred to as "repairing a conversation". This is the stage people with Asperger's are notoriously bad at. I am no exception.

Stage Five: Desperate Attempt to Salvage Conversation by Blurting Out Whatever is in My Head

"Did you know James Buchanan was probably gay? He was the president right before Lincoln. Some people think Lincoln was gay too because he shared beds with other men, but he probably just couldn't afford a bed. Also he had syphilis. But everybody had syphilis back then."

Stage Six: Panic Over Other Person's Lukewarm Response Coupled With Even More Desperate Attempt to Pull Conversation Back to Common Ground

"So anyway! Mudkips! Yes!"
"Mudkips are cool."
"One time I caught a Mudkip and named it Fart."
"Hehe. Fart."

And that's where the conversation usually dies its final, painful death. This is why I have learned to associate a) mainly online, and b) mainly with other socially awkward people, because those conversations go more like this:

Person 1: Remember Thundercats?
Person 2: I never watched Thundercats. I liked TMNT a lot though. And Captain Planet. Everyone says Heart is a sucky power but I think being able to command whole herds of buffalo to do your bidding would be pretty badass.
Person 3: Hey guys I made spaghetti
Person 4: [randomly quotes Cracked article]
Person 2: [still yammering about 80s cartoons]
Person 3: This spaghetti sauce coulda been better, I don't think I used enough oregano
Person 1: Man I usually just use sauce from a jar
Person 4: [still quoting from Cracked]
Person 5: The poop, it was HORRIBLE!
Person 2: Nice

I made that transcript up, but just barely. It probably sounds like a horrible trainwreck to anyone with a remotely organized brain, but it is normal conversation for me. So if you ever try to engage me in conversation, and I end up staring blankly into space, it's not because I'm not listening. It's because I'm trying to think of a response that is appropriate and doesn't involve poop or Thundercats or randomly blurting out something about gay dead people or things I see out of the corner of my eye. This can take me an alarmingly long time, because I have to sift through all the contents of my brain like an unsorted toy box. The socially-appropriate response is in there, but it's usually underneath many piles of plastic dinosaurs, and often by the time I find it, enough time has passed that the response is no longer socially appropriate:

"I bought new shoes today!"
[almost a full minute passes as I sift through possible responses: I wear shoes too, I haven't bought new shoes in like five years, remember light-up sneakers?, non-sequitur Simpsons quote involving shoes, dude remember Thundercats, cool what kind of shoes... yes! That one!]
"Cool, what kind of shoes?"

But by then it is too late. I have already been staring into space, looking puzzled, for a full minute, and the other person has either wandered off or has begun to wonder if I am experiencing some kind of temporal lobe seizure. Or they just think I am retarded. Usually that one.

This is compounded by the fact that I frequently cannot decode what a person has actually said until several seconds after they say it. My actual hearing is fine, but someone has clogged my ear-to-brain tubes with their internet porn, or something, because the words get stuck on the way there:

What you say: Do you want a sandwich?
What I hear: Djoowamma sawitch?
My response: [30 seconds of unresponsive staring in which it does not occur to me to go "What?"]
My brain process: Someone is making noise with their mouth. They are talking. Are they talking to me? They are looking at me. Shit. What did they say? Dew in the subway? Jew on the sub-witch? No! Do you want... do I want what? Person is holding a sandwich. Do I want a sandwich!
Me, feeling as if I have won a gameshow: Yes! I'll take a sandwich!! :D

This is if I am lucky enough to be continuously in the same room as the person talking to me. If they say something as I am walking by, I may never respond. This is why I hate it when store employees say hello to me. By the time I realize a person has spoken to me, and figure out what they said, and figured out how to respond, they have long since walked by, and I look like a big fat jerk.

So if you ever meet someone who appears to be an idiot, it is quite possible they are experiencing some kind of mental process like I have outlined above. Or maybe they are a self-absorbed ass. There's really no way to tell. It may not be exactly reassuring to know there is no way to immediately discern whether someone is an asshole or just experiencing some kind of cognitive dysfunction, but um, yay neuroscience?


*It occurred to me on rereading this post that I made it seem like I really, really like Thundercats, and now probably everybody at NEUC is gonna come up to me and be like "So! I heard you like Thundercats!" and then I will have to explain that I've never seen Thundercats in my life and it's just sort of a meme for people who were kids in the 80s to be like "omg remember THUNDERCATS?" except most of the people who read my blog weren't born in the 80s and wouldn't get that which means they also wouldn't try to talk to me about Thundercats anyway so I don't know why I even brought it up. And now I've said Thundercats like 75 times in this post and I will probably get an inordinate amount of blog hits from people looking for information about cheesy 80s cartoons and actually my blog is mostly about navel-gazing and they will be sad.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Accounting for Taste

I was thinking about South Park today. Well, more to the point, I was thinking of a comment left on this entry from The Seventeen Magazine Project, a brilliant project undertaken by an equally brilliant teenager. The comment in question, or the part of the comment that got me thinking, was this:

"this is exactly why i hate southpark. i don't need a bunch of straight white males telling ME what i should and shouldn't find offensive, thanks."

The discussion wasn't about South Park at all, and the mention of it was somewhat incongruous to the rest of the thread, but I still found it relevant. Now, for those of you who don't watch South Park, I realize it looks like a crude, potty-humor cartoon suitable mainly for stoners. When it first came out (half my life ago - ouch), that's basically what it was, and I'll admit there's still that element to it. But over the years, it has also developed into a forum for biting political and social commentary. What interested me about this comment is that it points out the privileged viewpoint from which Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and many of the other South Park writers make their arguments. Indeed, the episodes sometimes espouse the kind of views that would make me switch off the TV in disgust if they came from the mouth of a serious political pundit. And yet, I love South Park, even when it offends me. Why?

I spent some time today mulling that over, and I realized that it basically comes down to this: Regardless of whether South Park makes me shake my head in disgust or clap wildly in agreement (and it seems to do both in equal shares), it is one of the very few shows that both makes me laugh and makes me think on a consistent basis. Thinking on that more, I realized essentially every show I watch is appealing for one or both of those reasons. I've been feeling a bit data-happy lately, so I decided to make a graph. Below is a plot of 21 shows I watch regularly, or watched regularly in the past, and my reasons for watching. (I was tempted to knock one off to make a nice round number, but a mother cannot choose between her children.)

(Click to embiggen.)

A few notes on this graph. First of all, this is obviously completely subjective. I can only rank how much a show makes me laugh or think; there is no objective measure of how funny or thought-provoking a show is. Which brings me to my next point: The shows which make me think the most are not necessarily "smarter" shows. I would rate Arrested Development, for example, as a "smarter" show than South Park, in terms of the humor being much more sophisticated. But South Park got a higher "think" score because it generally makes me question my views or reflect on things that are going on in the world. Arrested Development simply puts its smarts in a different basket.

I also feel like shows intended for children got shafted a bit because of my age. As a near-25-year-old, Rocko's Modern Life doesn't really inspire a lot of original thought in me, but when I was seven - and thus part of its primary target audience - it certainly did, and were I seven years old today, I'm sure Spongebob and The Fairly Oddparents would as well. So again, there is really no way to measure a show's ability to provoke thought.

The biggest thing I noticed, however, is that even ranking the shows as honestly as possible, not a single one fell into quadrant III. Nothing. Zilch. There are definitely shows I would put in that quadrant, I just don't personally watch any of them. But someone does, or they wouldn't last a minute on the air. So while "makes me laugh" and "makes me think" are my personal criteria, it occurs to me that other people may have completely different reasons for enjoying or not enjoying a show. Of course, it's probable that shows that I would put in quadrant III would be in another quadrant for somebody else. But I still suspect that other people's reasons for watching a show are not the same as mine. For example, there's a long list of things I don't really care about in a show:

  • The cinematography
  • The quality of the acting (I like William Shatner, for God's sake)
  • High drama/action/badassery
  • Fashion, style, and trendiness
  • Sex and romance
  • The hotness of the cast (Except for Hugh Laurie. And Rachel Maddow. And Leonard Nimoy*. And Jon Stewart. Okay, fine, so maybe this helps a little.**)

Those things can make a show better, mind you, but they're not going to draw me in to begin with; they're icing on the cake of shows I already like. But I recognize that for some people, these factors may be much more important, to the point of making or breaking a show entirely.

So tell me, internets, what do you look for in a show? I've put a poll on the sidebar of my blog, and would really appreciate your responses. I'd also love to hear your thoughts in the comments, especially if there is some factor I've left out of the poll. I think this stuff is interesting to think about, not only because it can help us understand our own preferences, but it can also help build bridges between our own interests and those of other people. It's much easier to find the value in what another person likes if you're aware of all the different ways a show can be appealing, and that can go a long way to prevent shaming and judgement over differences in taste - something that, I must admit, I am still working on.

*Do not question this. I will sic all of my Trekkie friends on you. It won't be pretty.

**Although I still maintain that there is a clear difference between smart-people hot and Hollywood-pretty hot. I would not find these people one bit attractive if they did not make me laugh and/or think, so I maintain that I have not actually diverged from my basic point here. Much.