Thursday, May 24, 2018

Decoding the Dress Code

My daughter's junior high school has a dress code policy that includes a prohibition on unnaturally-colored hair. I've always been somewhat aware of this rule and thought it was stupid, but it was never an issue because my daughter never expressed any interest in dyeing her hair--until recently. She was approaching the end of ninth grade and wanted to do something fun with her hair for the summer, and she really wanted to do it before the end of school so all her friends would see. I wasn't sure how strictly the dress code is enforced--I hoped it was one of those things where they have an outdated rule on the books, but in reality people are more reasonable than to enforce it--but I knew that she would be taking a chance of getting in trouble if she did it. We talked about that risk and she decided she was willing to take it. I was excited to share the joys of dyed hair with my child and I was proud to see her challenge a rule that shouldn't have existed in the first place, but ultimately the decision was hers: her body, her choice.

I dyed her hair last Friday. She only wanted a little bit in back done, kind of a peek-a-boo splash of color. I loved it. She went to a band festival at Lagoon on Saturday and had fun showing off the new colors. She went to school on Monday and Tuesday. No problems. Tuesday night she had a band concert. When she came up front for her jazz band solo and again for her symphonic band Most Valuable Player award, her colors were very visible. She looked beautiful. And, as it happened, the principal was sitting on the front row.

How do you expect students to learn while her hair looks like this?!

The next morning Daughter was called into the office and told that if she wanted to participate in any of the end-of-year activities over the next week, she would have to cover the unnatural-colored dye with spray-on natural-colored dye. I was furious. Following is the letter I wrote to the principal, who is retiring after this school year, as well as to next year's incoming principal, annotated for your enjoyment and edited to protect the identities of the innocent and guilty alike:
Hi Current Principal (C.P.) and Future Principal (F.P.)--
I am emailing both of you because this morning my daughter was dress-coded for having colored hair, and this raises both immediate concerns I hope C.P. will address, and long-term concerns I hope F.P. will address. I am not surprised that this happened--I know the rules and I discussed the potential consequences with Daughter when she asked me to dye her hair two weeks before school was out, in order to show off the colors to her friends--but I am nonetheless upset, disappointed, and frankly a little sickened. I recognize the dress code is an Alpine School District rule*, but whether and how you enforce the rule is your choice, C.P., and it will be your choice, F.P., so I will hold each of you directly responsible for your choices. 
A dress code that restricts what color a student's hair is--or for that matter anything related to how they use their own bodies to express themselves--has no right to exist in 2018. Enforcing this rule sends the message to children that others have the right to tell them what to do or not do with their bodies, and that is a very dangerous message to send. I would hope that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we all know better than to seek to impose our own values and desires on someone else's body without their consent. Clearly that isn't the case or the movement wouldn't have been necessary in the first place, but at the very least I expect educators to send a very strong message to children--and especially to young women--that their bodies are their own. Period. 
I imagine the dress code had a purpose at one point, to prepare children to succeed in a professional environment where conformity was valued, but that is no longer the world we live in. As you've seen, I typically have my own hair dyed in bright, unnatural colors, and this has had zero impact on my career. In my role as a director** for a global technology company, I have worked with clients at major companies in Silicon Valley, and neither my employer nor my clients care what color my hair is. They are only concerned with the quality of my work, my integrity, and other such things that actually matter. 
Daughter is a straight-A*** student taking multiple AP and honors courses, constantly receiving awards for her art and music, in the process gaining the respect of her teachers and peers, and you, C.P., have chosen to penalize her for expressing herself creatively in a way that literally harms no one, only because it violates an arbitrary, outdated, harmful rule. To be clear, Daughter does not come by her success without challenges: Among other things, her parents are divorced and she is the child of a gay father living in an extremely heteronormative community. Through no choice of her own, she is different in a community that does not value difference. As a gay atheist in Orem, Utah, I have some idea of what that is like, but I can only imagine how junior high school intensifies that experience. I would not blame Daughter for hiding her difference in an attempt to fit in, but she chooses to be open with her friends about herself and her family with a quiet courage that I did not have at her age. Her choice to dye her hair was an artistic way of saying, "I am different, and I am proud of who I am."**** As a father, I could not be prouder. 
My point is not to say that my daughter has special reasons for coloring her hair, so you should make an exception for her. My point is that every child has reasons for expressing themselves the way they choose to, and so long as they are not harming themselves or others, we should encourage that, not punish it. It is one thing to tell children what they can wear to school*****, but it is something else entirely to tell them what they can and can't do with their own bodies--this affects their lives outside of school, and considering that school is mandatory this imposes your values on their lives in a way that is unfair and unhealthy. My children don't often break rules, but I can promise you that if they did break a rule that actually had a reason to exist, I would be 100% with you. However, so long as my child is breaking a rule that is unjust, I will defend and support her decision to do so. 
C.P., I realize you are about a week from the end of the school year and retirement, but it is never too late to admit you were wrong and make things right. Recently, when Daughter was chosen to be a section leader in the high school marching band, I told her one of the most important things a leader can do is admit when they are wrong. I imagine that with your leadership experience, that is a lesson you already know well. I know you love the children you work with****** and you want what's best for them, and I am here to tell you that attempting to exert control over their bodies is not what's best for them and it does not show love. 
F.P., I know that a survey recently went out asking students how they feel about dress code enforcement (among other things). I hope that is a sign that you are seriously considering abandoning this ridiculous rule. If you need more convincing, I'll be happy to discuss further with you. 
--Ben 
*I have since learned the district's dress code is pretty vague. It is the junior high's own rule that explicitly forbids unnaturally-colored hair. 
**I actually switched from the director role into my current instructional designer role last September, but that didn't seem as relevant as the client-facing role I was in for three years. 
***I have since been reminded that she got one A- in eighth grade. 
****I should clarify, that's my interpretation of what she's saying with her hair. She didn't actually tell me this. She may well have only been saying, "I like pretty colors." That is also a worthwhile artistic statement. 
*****To be clear, I feel pretty much the same about restricting a child's clothing as I do about restricting their hair color, but I figure one battle at a time, and I do think there's a significant difference in the degree of invasiveness of the two. 
******She told me so the night before, when we were chatting after the band concert. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The 80s Sitcom Lifestyle

From a very young age, my evening babysitter was the television. Left home alone while my mom worked and my older siblings worked or hung out with friends, I adopted Steven Keaton, Jason Seaver, and Clair Huxtable as my foster parents. As the youngest of seven children being raised in Hawaii by a single mother living on a server's tips, I was fascinated by the mostly white, middle class, suburban, two-parent nuclear family life portrayed on the sitcoms of the mid-eighties. My daytimes, meanwhile, were filled with cartoons and by sitcoms from the fifties, populated by families even more stereotypical of white suburban America than those of eighties sitcoms.

Between what I saw on TV and what I learned in church--where the traditional (i.e. Cold War-era suburban white heteronormative) family is held up on a pedestal--I came out of childhood sure of two things:

  1. The kind of home and family life I wanted. 
  2. That I had been unfairly deprived of said home and family life in my childhood. 
This left me 
  1. desperate to find the kind of home and family life I wanted; and
  2. super bitter about my childhood home and family life. 
It was this desperation that led me to marry young, have three beautiful children, and work my way through three college degrees in search of a satisfying career with which to support my family. I would do anything to achieve that sitcom family lifestyle I'd been chasing since childhood. If I couldn't be raised by Ward Cleaver, then dang it, I'd become him. 

About nine years in, we achieved the dream: a month before our third child was born, we bought a house in a quaint suburban neighborhood two blocks from the elementary school. We started a garden in the backyard. We even hung a family portrait over the fireplace. 

Image result for growing pains family portrait
It worked on Growing Pains
I had everything I'd ever wanted, and still I felt empty. I didn't want to be Ward Cleaver; I wanted to be married to Ward Cleaver. As it turns out, those sitcoms--and the church--forgot to tell me the model of home and family life they were idealizing wasn't ideal for everyone. So at great pain to myself and the people I love most, I embarked on a half-decade transition that has now landed me in a life that looks very much like those eighties sitcoms I loved so much, with our brightly-decorated home with a family picture hanging over the stairway in a quaint suburban neighborhood right next to an elementary school. Every day about 5:30 my husband and I greet each other as we get home from work, we make dinner, we watch TV or read or write. It's not ideal in that our children have to split their time between our home and their mothers' homes, but given the circumstances this is the best possible reality available to us.

Maybe a little more Brady Bunch meets My Two Dads than Leave it to Beaver.

My point is not to say, "Boo hoo, look how false ideals created by television and religion ruined my life." On the contrary, I would have to be blind not to recognize how lucky I am. Yes, it took a modest helping of blood, sweat, and tears to get here, but the fact that I was able to achieve this is a function of my privilege. I recently read an article about research showing that statistically, a white man raised in poverty has roughly the equivalent chance of success that a black man raised in a rich family has. And race is only one of the ways I'm privileged.

This is why representation matters. On TV, in movies, in literature, we need to see all kinds of people in all kinds of family, home, and life situations. We need people of all gender and sexual identities, we need people of all colors, we need people in various levels of economic status. In real life, there are many ways to achieve happiness; we need media that reflects this.

Also, Netflix, if you want to produce a sitcom about two gay dads who are non-custodial parents of five children living in the heart of suburban Mormon Utah, give me a call.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Growing Into Batmanhood

The Batman I was first introduced to as a small child was the swashbuckling, dry-humored adventurer of Super Friends and the 1966 Adam West TV series. This Batman was based on the character as depicted in comic books from the 1940s through the 1960s, a cross between an overgrown child and a child's fantasy of a father figure. He was everything a young boy could hope for in a dad--a rich, powerful man who adopted the orphaned Robin, spent all his time having fantastic adventures with the boy, had a ready-made solution for every problem imaginable, and constantly spouted trite wisdom, often in the form of bad puns. For all his fatherliness, though, this Batman was a child emotionally, with his black-and-white morality (everyone in his world is either a hero or a villain), his disregard for any kind of real-world responsibilities outside of fighting crime (Bruce Wayne's profession is "playboy"), and his disinterest in romance (he constantly rejected the advances of supervillainesses, superheroines, and damsels in distress alike, claiming that women would be a distraction from his mission, but he may as well have said, "Girls have cooties").

Image result for batwoman kathy kane romance batman
Even in the "imaginary" stories where Batman got married, he behaved like a bratty child.

In the comic books of the 1970s through 1990s, Batman "grew up," as more realistic stories and artwork depicted him as a dark avenger, constantly brooding over his parents' murder. I was introduced to this grim and gritty Batman first through Tim Burton's 1989 film, which debuted when I was nine, and then through the comic books I started reading when I was twelve. Going into my teenage years, I loved how "adult" this Batman was, as this allowed me to continue enjoying a childhood favorite while distancing myself from the elements of the character I now saw as childish. In retrospect, I see this Batman as a teenage fantasy of adulthood, in reality an emotional teenager himself. He obsessed over a childhood tragedy as only a teenager could, distanced himself from the people who loved him with claims that he works best alone, and constantly flirted with femme fatales like Talia al Ghul and Catwoman without ever daring to commit to anything resembling a healthy relationship.

Image result for batman talia al ghul sexual tension
Batman got married once in the 1980s, but only because Talia slipped him a roofie. 

In the 2000s and 2010s, it has been refreshing to see Batman grow up emotionally along with me. It started in the comic books with the character embracing his family of Robins and Batgirls, like a young man realizing he really does love his family after spending his teenage years trying to avoid them for fear their lameness would rub off on him. Slowly, self-aware humor has crept into the stories, as when Ben Affleck's Batman says in Justice League that his superpower is being rich. This is a man who recognizes that dressing up as a bat to fight crime because you made a promise to your dead parents when you were eight is kind of silly, but embraces it because it's who he is. This is a man who enjoys what he does, knows himself, and acknowledges that he needs others. I've particularly enjoyed recent Batman comics, written by Tom King, where after 78 years of flirting Batman has finally proposed to Catwoman and they are exploring their relationship with surprising emotional maturity. They open up to each other, they make themselves vulnerable, and they go beyond melodramatic, angsty, adolescent sexual tension to actually making each other happy.

Related image
What? Batman admitting he has emotions like fear and love? This is new. 

I don't know where Batman will go from here, but I hope the character continues to grow up with me. Here's hoping Batman comics of the 2060s explore the challenges of wearing adult diapers under spandex!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

My Thanksgiving Post

I've never felt inclined to post one thing I'm thankful for each day of November, as many of my Facebook friends like to do, but since today is Thanksgiving I'll give you twelve things and count that for the entire month:

  1. I am thankful for my husband. He makes me feel loved in all the ways--with words, with acts of kindness, with gifts, with touch, with his time. I've always been very attracted to him, but lately he is sexier to me than he has ever been, in large part because he intentionally dresses and grooms himself in ways he knows I find attractive, and knowing he does it for me makes it that much hotter. He makes me so happy that every now and then I need to do a reality check to be sure I'm not locked away in a padded cell somewhere, hallucinating this amazing life I have. 
  2. I am thankful for my children. I loved how cute and cuddly they were when they were little and I have a sense of loss as the littlest one gets bigger, but at the same time I absolutely love getting to know them as they form their own identities. I look forward to the relationship I hope to have with them when they are adults. I love when I see things they got from me, like my love for superhero cartoons or my quirky sense of humor, and I love when I see things they couldn't have possibly gotten from me, like their musical talent and the emotional maturity it took me years longer to attain. 
  3. I am thankful for my stepdaughters. I am still figuring out how to be a good stepdad, which forces me to learn and grow in ways I wouldn't otherwise. These girls have a manic appreciation for life's delights that will hopefully rub off on me. 
  4. I am thankful for my ex-wife. She is kind, patient, and cooperative in our co-parenting relationship, and she is an amazing mother to our children. So many of the things that I love in them come from her, like their willingness to try new foods, their encyclopedic knowledge of geography, and their love for reading. 
  5. I am thankful for my ex-wife-in-law. She is a great co-parent and friend to my husband, and I appreciate that she has extended that friendship to me. Our ongoing competition to see which of us can succeed in making the other more uncomfortable with awkwardly inappropriate jokes is one of the joys of my life. 
  6. I am thankful for my friends. In the past couple of years my husband and I have become part of a great group of friends and our nights spent in drunken conversation and laughter with them are always something to look forward to. In particular, I love that we have a best friend couple that we share many of life's adventures with, sometimes with our combined group of nine children and sometimes just the four of us. 
  7. I am thankful for my family. Even when we see each other infrequently, those times bring back years and years of happy memories and a sense of comfortable familiarity. I don't have an actual childhood home to return to, so family is home. 
  8. I am thankful for my job. This year I transitioned into a new role that I enjoy ten times as much as my previous role, and my employer was fully supportive of me making this move to improve my job satisfaction, even at the inconvenience of having to replace my former position. Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy the flexibility of working from home and the opportunities that affords me as a parent with young children. 
  9. I am thankful for this beautiful, mind-blowingly amazing universe we live in. In the past year I've come to love sunsets like I never did before, and I love learning new things about the way our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and the entire universe work. 
  10. I am thankful for evolution. The human race is the product of millions of years of adaptation and natural selection doing their thing, and when you think about all the things our bodies and our brains can do, it's pretty awesome. 
  11. I am thankful for technology. This is kind of a sub-point of #10, because this is a product of those brains evolution gave us, but it warrants its own point nonetheless. There are so many ways our lives are better now than they were even twenty years ago, because of advances in technology. Way to go, smart humans. 
  12. I am thankful for me. In the past year I have gotten to know myself better than I had in the previous thirty-seven years, and I am coming to love myself more and more, including all my flaws and peculiarities. I am happy in ways I didn't believe possible, and I am thankful to be alive. 
Image result for turkey

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

My F*** You Boots

Last year I bought myself a pair of tall black boots. When I wear them, I feel fabulously powerful, like Batman or Beyoncé. Also, just about every time I wear them I get comments on them. The comments are pretty evenly divided between "Ben, I f***ing love your boots!" and "Ben, I love you, but what the f*** are you thinking with those boots?" Many people I love and respect happen to share my aesthetic sensibilities in this particular case, and many people I love and respect do not. At first I felt self-conscious about making such a controversial fashion choice, but over time I have come to love the boots even more because so many people hate them. So much, in fact, that I have decided that henceforth the boots shall be known as my f*** you boots.

If these boots had a theme song, it would be performed by Cee-Lo Green.

For context, you should understand that I have always been a people pleaser, often to an unhealthy extreme. I thrive on positive feedback. When people tell me I'm good at my job, I glow. When I get compliments on being a good dad, I eat them up even though I know I'm being complimented for basic things moms do every day without fanfare. On the flipside, when my high school English teacher scolded me for making an inconsiderate joke, I could barely hold back the tears. When I receive critical feedback on my writing, even though I'm the one who asked for it, I struggle to convince my brain that the criticism doesn't mean people don't like me. Hell, when a friend tells me they just aren't feeling one of my favorite songs, my knee-jerk reaction is to feel like there's something wrong with me. The people-pleasing impulse is so strong that sometimes I'm not even sure whether I think something or if I just think that's what people want me to think. 

Much of my adult life, particularly the past five years, has been spent learning to be myself rather than being whatever the people around me want me to be. I struggle with this largely because I've seen people who, tired of being doormats, swing all the way to the other side and become narcissists. No, I don't want to neglect my needs in favor of others' needs, but I also don't want to prioritize my needs to the point that I'm harming others. In the wise, drunken words of Tina Fey's character on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, "Happy people value their needs as much as others’s." The key is to find that balance. 


With this in mind, it brings me joy to find things that please me but displease other people without actually harming them. It's an ethically safe zone for me to practice authentic self-building. "Ben, I f***ing hate your boots," someone might say, and I can respond (in my head, usually), "F*** you, it's my body and I get to choose what I put on it." The fact that family, friends, and colleagues regularly question my decision to wear these boots is a nice reminder that this is one thing I'm doing for me, not for anyone else. It's a very empowering feeling, especially because I know I'm not in danger of hurting anyone with my choice of footwear. There are times when it's difficult to find the healthy boundary between my needs and others' needs, but thankfully this is not one of them. So if you have a problem with my f*** you boots, you are welcome to say so, and when I silently smile at you in response, you'll know exactly what I'm thinking.

EDIT: I lied. My boots do have a theme song, and this is it:

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Live Trying

I have spent most of my adult life trying, to various degrees, to become a published novelist, but never as much as I'm trying this year. Over the past twenty years I've written eight books, started many others, written short stories and essays, published a few of those, completed two degrees in English with emphasis in creative writing, attended and volunteered at multiple writing conferences, and participated in and started several writing groups, but up through 2016 I'd only submitted a dozen or so query letters to editors and agents. In 2017 I've sent out 106 queries so far.

In case you're not familiar with the process, here's how it works: You write a book. You revise it until it's good enough to publish. Then you find a literary agent, send a query letter introducing yourself and your book, maybe include a few sample chapters if that's what they ask for in their submission instructions, and you wait for them to respond. Ideally, the agent likes your query, asks to see the rest of the manuscript, likes the book, and agrees to represent you. Then the agent starts the process of trying to sell your book to a publisher. I've not yet gotten that to that point. So far this year I've received 48 rejection letters. The vast majority are form letters: "Thank you for submitting your query. Unfortunately, I'm not the right agent to represent your work, but the publishing industry is very subjective so keep trying!" Many agents let you know up front that if you don't hear back from them in X weeks, you should assume they aren't interested, so add to those 48 letters another 30-40 de facto rejections.


At any rate, rejection is just part of the game. If you are serious about getting published, you have to deal with rejection--lots of it. J.K. Rowling, Shannon Hale, virtually any published author will tell you stories of the numerous rejection letters they received before finding success. So as emotionally draining as this entire process is, the rejection also gives me a sense of accomplishment, like I'm paying my dues. I'm also doing my best to make it a learning experience, experimenting with different approaches and testing the waters with different books.

At the end of the day, I can't control whether agents will like my stuff and want to represent me. I can't control whether editors will want to publish my books, or whether readers will want to read them. All the things I can't control are kind of overwhelming, so instead I focus on the things I can control: I write regularly--admittedly September will be the first month this year that I hit my goal of 10 hours per week every week of the month, but I have hit the goal frequently throughout the year and even the weeks where I don't quite make it, I've written more than I would have without the goal. I submit queries regularly. I stay focused, which can be hard because the more you write the more writing ideas you have, but starting a hundred different new things without finishing anything does not get you published, so when those new ideas come I jot down notes, then get back to the project I'm working on.

Rejection is hard. Not having complete control over this thing that means so much to my sense of self is hard. Nonetheless, this year I feel better about myself--as a writer, and therefore as a person--than I ever have because I'm more focused on working toward this goal than I ever have been. I may or may not achieve my lifelong goal of becoming a published novelist, but I will live trying.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Choosing Happiness

When I blogged a month ago about learning that I can make choices to make my life happier, I didn't realize that in the following weeks, I'd be putting my money where my mouth was.

Nine years ago I completed a master's of library and information science, which was my second master's degree. My first was in English, but when I realized I wasn't making any money with my hard-earned creative writing skills I went back to school for a more practical degree. I'd been working in libraries for five years by the time I finished the MLIS program, and my plan was to settle into a long-term library career. As I was searching for a library job, though, I happened upon a part-time work-from-home opportunity as a web search evaluator. The work looked interesting and the part-time work-from-home flexibility was ideal at a time that I'd be moving to two different states within a few months and then taking care of kids while their mom started a PhD program. As it turned out, I loved the work--I got to look at random web pages all day, see what people were searching for online, and work at whatever time of day I found convenient. Best of all for an introvert like me, I didn't have to go anywhere, which meant I didn't have to talk to anyone.

A year later, my then-wife decided the PhD program wasn't for her, so I let my project manager know I'd be leaving as soon as I found full-time work--presumably at a library. The PM didn't want to lose me, so she recommended me for a full-time lead position. I was happy to continue working for the company, as I enjoyed the work and they were treating me well. A few months later I was promoted to associate project manager. A year after that, project manager. A couple years later, senior project manager. Then, three years ago I was promoted to director. Throughout it all I continued to enjoy the work we did--it's fun to be at the cutting edge of machine learning technology--and it's been a really great company to work for.

But.

But last year I stopped and said, "Wait, how did I end up in management?" As much as I like the people I work with and the stuff we're doing, human interaction stresses me out, and managing relationships had become like 90% of my job. This realization was a large part of my impetus to re-focus on writing this year. I was going to return to my original dream of being an author, and once I had just enough of a writing income to supplement my husband's full-time salary, I could move out of the management career I'd fallen into. It was a long-term exit strategy, likely years out, but I was okay with that. After all, I wasn't miserable; I just didn't particularly enjoy much of what I was doing.

My role model when I was the boss.
And then I wrote that blog post about making happy choices last month, reassessed my life choices, and realized how much managing people was stressing me out, and decided I needed a more immediate exit strategy. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that was. Would I go back to libraries? It would have to be just the right job--nearby, and light on talking to people. Who knew how soon that ideal library job would open up?

Within days of deciding I needed something different, I was interviewing candidates for an instructional designer position, and suddenly I knew what I wanted to do. As an instructional designer, I wouldn't have to manage people. My English degrees, my teaching experience, and my nine years of subject matter expertise all made me a pretty good candidate to design e-learning modules for our employees and contractors. It would be like teaching, which I enjoy, but without having to talk to students, which was my least favorite part of teaching. And best of all, it would be an opportunity for me to be creative, which is my lifeblood. So I talked to my boss, who agreed I'd make an excellent instructional designer and was happy to get me into a role where I'd be happier (this really is a great company), and badabing badaboom, now I'm an instructional designer. It's a bit of a pay cut but it's worth it to be doing something I wholeheartedly enjoy.

I'm incredibly fortunate to be in a place where I could afford to take that pay cut, and working for a company willing to move me into a position better suited to me. I don't pretend that happiness is a simple matter of making good choices, because some people don't have any good choices available to them. But within whatever limitations life gives you, whatever range of choices you have available, why not make the one that makes you happiest? At the end of the day, that's what life is all about.