Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Flowers for Benjamin

Last month I developed a strange rash, first on my foot and then all over my body, that made me excruciatingly itchy. I tried every kind of anti-itch ointment, lotion, and moisturizer I could find, but nothing stopped the itch. I resisted scratching as much as I could, but gave in a few times and of course made it worse. The timing of the rash's first appearance, within a week of having a water softener installed in our home, along with the fact that showering consistently made me itchier, led me to believe that I was one of the rare few I read about online who have an allergic reaction to water softening chemicals. We switched out the sodium in the water softener for potassium, but a week later the itch was no better (which was a bit of a relief, honestly, because the potassium costs ten times as much as the sodium so I really didn't want to buy it regularly). I stopped showering at home, using gym showers instead, and washed my clothes and sheets at a friend's house to eliminate all traces of my house's water from my body. Nothing solved the problem.

A wiser person would have seen a doctor sooner. It took me almost a month, but finally I went to my dermatologist. He took one look at the original rash on my foot, which at this point was an oozing, puss-filled mess, and said, "Oh, looks like you have an allergy to Neosporin." He told me to use Polysporin ointment instead (which made the oozing stop almost immediately), shrugged off the water softener theory as highly unlikely (another relief), and--most importantly--he gave me drugs to stop the itch. He prescribed a stronger anti-itch ointment as well as Prednisone, a powerful oral steroid that he said would end the itch much faster, but would also come with a number of weird side effects, including nausea, high blood pressure, headaches, mood swings, insomnia, and bad dreams. Hesitant to take on those side effects, I opted to start with the ointment, but keep the Prednisone prescription as a backup. The next day when the itch was more miserable than ever, I filled the Prednisone prescription. (And it only cost $0.87--a rare win for insurance!)

Image result for drugs

The itch ended almost immediately. The doctor gave specific instructions to take the Prednisone over a two-week period, though, starting at four doses a day and then tapering down to one, and I sure didn't want the itch to come back, so I dutifully followed the doctor's orders. And you know what? Prednisone is a miracle drug.

The first thing I noticed is how happy it made me feel. I spent last week on cloud nine. As I understand it, the drug typically gives you an emotional boost at first, and then as it wears off you get the down that makes for a full mood swing. When I was on four doses a day and even three doses a day, there wasn't enough time for that down to hit--I just felt fantastic all day long.

Next, I started breathing through my nose. You have to understand, I have had clogged sinuses for as long as I remember. Off and on since I was a teenager, I've had various prescriptions for nasal inhalers, typically steroids, that helped somewhat, but I've never succeeded in breathing through my nose comfortably and naturally for any significant period of time. For the past week and a half I've felt my sinuses relax and expand, letting through more oxygen than my nostrils have ever felt. Every breath is a glorious rush, a cool sting of clarity as oxygen saturates my brain. Did you know that breathing through your nose stimulates your brain in ways that breathing through your mouth does not? It feels like someone supercharged my mind. (And it's not like I was an idiot before.)

The final life-changing effect of the Prednisone only kicked in fully this past weekend, as I was walking around the house and realized that I was standing on my foot differently. I've been told in the past that I have high arches, particularly on my left foot. This essentially means that I stand with the inside of my foot raised too high, which means my foot and ankle are angled outward instead of straight up and down. I had never connected this fact with another problem my left foot had, which was that it was perpetually clenched into a slight claw such that I could not straighten out my toes without using my hand or the floor to push them flat. This has always bothered me, but I couldn't do anything about it except force-stretch it now and then, with no real impact. But thanks to the Prednisone, even the most tense parts of my body have relaxed, including my left foot. Suddenly I'm able to stand with it flat, which makes a world of difference in the rest of my body--gone are the corresponding tension that until recently shot up my ankle, my calf, through my knee, outside my thigh and through my hip, then all the way up my spine and neck every time I took a step. Even my jaw has started unclenching as I've stretched out this foot over the past couple of days. So much chronic pain that was such an everyday part of my life that it was just noise for the past twenty years, and now suddenly there's silence.

I have never felt so relaxed in my life, physically or mentally.

Except now I'm on my final days of Prednisone. Today was my last day with two doses. In four more days, I'll be done completely. Even just reducing the dose, I've started to feel some of that congestion creeping back into my sinuses. And especially now that I have enough time between doses to experience the full range of emotional side effects, the thought of going back to chronic pain when the medication is gone is depressing. I feel like Charlie, the man whose IQ is doubled in a scientific experiment but then slowly, horrifically returns to his stupider self in the short story "Flowers for Algernon." I like the person I am now, with clear, brain-stimulating nose breaths and unclenched toes that allow me to stand up straight without back pain. I don't want to regress to that mouth-breathing, claw-footed man who's always hurting.

The blessing, of course, is that I know what the problems are and that they are solvable. My plan is to go to my regular doctor, explain the symptoms and tell him that Prednisone worked effectively, then work with him to find a permanent solution. I don't think Prednisone itself is a permanent solution because of the side effects--even with how wonderful I've been feeling, I could do without the way it's been messing with my stomach and my sleep cycle. But I'm hopeful we'll find something. If not, I suppose I'll always have this blog post to remember the two weeks I was a well-oxygenated, pain-free version of me. And if I'm grumpy next time you see me, you'll know this Ben didn't make it. Grumpy Ben will accept flowers on my behalf.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Dear White Men,

Hi. I'm Ben. Like you, I am a white man. Not only that, but I'm also married to a white man, so I guess you could say I'm pretty much an expert on the topic of white men. As such, it has come to my attention that lately a lot of white men are feeling a little downtrodden, maybe a little ganged up on by everyone else. It's disorienting to spend the first half of the movie believing you're the hero, and then suddenly feel like they've flipped the script and now you're the villain. You may be wondering what you did to deserve all the flack white men are getting lately. I'm here to tell you that I know how you feel.

I grew up in Hawaii where, at least at the schools I went to, being white made me a minority. I was also one of the few Mormons at my school, poor, nerdy, unathletic, being raised by a single mother, and secretly gay, so nothing about my experience with the world led me to believe I was in a position to oppress anyone else. I was the bottom of the food chain, and the school bullies made sure I knew it. Yet in ninth grade history, when we learned about the ways white men overthrew the peaceful queen of Hawaii and stole the land away from the native population, it felt like all eyes in the room were on me. In tenth grade, when we learned about the ways white men enslaved, lynched, and raped black people, I felt like everyone thought I was somehow to blame. By the time we got to world history in eleventh grade, two things were clear to me: White men were responsible for most if not all of history's greatest atrocities; and I would forever carry the weight of this guilt on my own shoulders. I wanted to scream, "But it wasn't me! I didn't do those things!" #NotAllWhiteMen!

My friends patiently listened while I complained about feeling singled out for crimes my ancestors committed and reassured me that I was, in fact, a good person and nothing like those other white men. I'm sure it helped that my friends knew I was born and raised in Hawaii, so I was exempt from the general disdain for mainland haoles shared by many locals. It also helped that I hadn't committed any genocides. (Yet.) I felt heard and understood, so I could go back to hearing and understanding others, even when what they had to say assigned blame for everything that's wrong with the world to my people.

Part of my disconnect was that I never truly thought of white men as "my people." At home I regularly listened to my mom complain about cold, prim and proper, heartless mainlanders, in contrast to the warm, casual, loving people of the islands. At school and church I was surrounded by the mix of Asians and Pacific Islanders that make up much of Hawaii's population. White people were truly haole to me--the Hawaiian word used for Caucasians literally means "foreign." As for men, they were equally foreign to me. There were no men in my home, so the only men I saw were two-dimensional characters on TV and in comic books, the occasional male teacher, and the seemingly perfect authority figures at church. I didn't relate to any of them because of the above-mentioned secret gayness, which in my mind made me fundamentally different from the universally straight men I saw in the world around me. My people were brown people and women, so when they complained of being victimized by white men, I was right there with them.

Image result for evil white men
I also watched a lot of Scooby-Doo.
Several years later, after I published an essay about being a gay Mormon married to a woman, I was attacked online by a feminist blogger who accused me of being a misogynist supporter of patriarchy. This was hard for me. Women were my people. How could anyone think I hate women? How could anyone think I support the oppression of women? At the time I was on my way out of Mormonism, and even as a Mormon I like to think I was pretty open-minded, progressive, and conscious of women's issues. It was something of an identity crisis to be told by someone who is an authority on the matter--a bonafide feminist--that I was in fact the opposite of who I thought I was. I lashed out a bit, learned some important lessons about how to handle online debates, and then eventually moved on, reassured by my feminist friends that I was not, in fact, a misogynist.

The difference between my feminist critic's view and my feminist friends' view rested in how much they knew about me. The critic knew only that I was a Mormon man in a straight marriage, so whenever my written words could be read in either a positive or negative light, she interpreted them according to her assumptions about Mormon men in straight marriages--which, based on her experience with that group of people, was not positive. My friends, on the other hand, knew all those demographic facts about me, but they also knew me as a human being who is generally a decent, non-misogynistic person, so they read any ambiguities of my writing in that positive light.

In both experiences, I felt judged based on my race or gender by people who didn't know any more about me, while those who knew me well enough recognized that the race- and gender-based judgments didn't apply to me. In essence, I had already proven myself to them, and I still needed to prove myself to my critics. This is essentially the place many white men find themselves in today: At least in certain circles, we are assumed racist and sexist until we demonstrate otherwise to the satisfaction of whoever is judging us. I'm not going to lie, it sucks to be treated as guilty until proven innocent. But guess what? Throughout the history of western civilization, this has been the case for women and people of color. I wanted to put "until recently" in that last sentence, but I can't. We've made progress, yes, but racism and sexism continue to pervade our society. So, my white male friends, if you feel like you're being judged for your race or gender, then welcome to the human experience.

But wouldn't an ideal society not judge anyone by their race or gender, including white men? Yes, definitely, but that's not our current reality; everyone has unconscious biases based on their experience. If someone makes assumptions about you because you are a white men, it's likely that they've had a lot of experiences with racist and/or sexist white men. Calling them hypocrites because they are judging you based on your gender or race does little to change anyone's mind, and it equates the relatively minor harm of being treated as a racist or sexist with the much greater harms of being denied employment, being paid less, being profiled by police, being sexually assaulted or raped, or being murdered because of one's gender or race. Let's be clear: Any unconscious biases you and I suffer from are not equivalent to institutionalized racism or sexism. Just as women and people of color have fought for centuries to prove white men's assumptions about them are not true, the only way we white men will change biases about us is by not being racist or sexist.

"But I'm not racist or sexist!" Two problems with that argument: First, very few racists or sexists describe themselves as such, so clearly self-definition is not sufficient here; the only way to know if we are racist or sexist is to listen to what women and people of color say about us. Second, it's not an either-or thing here. The options aren't either slave owner or not racist. As I mentioned above, we all have subconscious biases, and many of those biases are sexist or racist. I can march for women's rights, support the #MeToo movement, and treat my female coworkers with respect, and still say something that offends women simply because I didn't fully think through how my words might be interpreted. As an ally I can do my best to understand the experiences of women and people of color and respect their perspectives, but as a white man I cannot completely understand those experiences or perspectives. Not being racist or sexist doesn't just mean avoiding the big, obvious harms; it means listening when women and people of color tell us about the more subtle ways we are making life difficult for them. It means when someone tells me I screwed up, I get over my hurt ego, apologize, and do better.

Being judged unfairly sucks. Having to prove yourself sucks. Instead of feeling bad for ourselves, let's work to create a world where no one has reason to assume white men are racist or sexist--one not-racist, not-sexist white man at a time.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Finding Love's Limits

On Friday night my husband and I watched Believer, a documentary about Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds' efforts to fight the problem of LGBTIQ youth suicide in Utah. On Saturday night we attended the primary focus of those efforts, the second annual LoveLoud Festival--a concert featuring Imagine Dragons and several other performing artists raising money to support charities like the Trevor Project, the Tegan and Sara Foundation, and Encircle. On Sunday night we watched Love, Simon, a movie about a gay kid coming out in high school and dealing with various challenges that continue for gay kids even in today's world where homophobia is less and less socially acceptable. Saturday morning I stared at my reflection in the mirror and, for the first time in thirty-eight years, was able to look at that man with judgment-free love and saw the same staring back at me. It's been an emotional weekend.

I won't say more about Believer or Love, Simon except that both are excellent films worth watching and that both left me feeling a little emotionally exhausted. Neither, however, exhausted me as thoroughly as did the LoveLoud Festival. Last year's festival was an amazing experience that made me feel unexpectedly nourished in ways I didn't know I needed to be nourished. This year I had a markedly different response. Don't get me wrong; the festival was amazing. Some of the highlights for me were Grace Vanderwaal's endearing performance (the poor girl got stung by a bee on stage!), a surprise appearance by Mary Lambert, and pretty much everything about the two-hour Imagine Dragons set. As we entered the stadium there were people handing out free light-up bracelets; little did we know, these were controlled remotely to make the entire stadium light up in various color patterns in sync with each song. It was a gorgeous sight and a beautiful metaphor for the festival--the focus was clearly on Dan Reynolds, the charismatic, sexy, shirtless rock star on the stage, but he was using his time in the spotlight to help others shine their own lights.


Despite everything I loved about the festival and the amount of time I spent enjoying each moment, I also spent a good portion of the show feeling really, really angry that this whole thing exists. More precisely, angry that it needs to exist. Why on earth do we need to keep telling parents to love their children, to accept them as they are? Shouldn't this be obvious to any human being? Why do you need a rock star to protect your own children from your bigotry? They are your children! It's your job to love them and protect them; when someone else needs to protect them from you, you have failed as a parent and as a human being. As Reynolds and various other celebrities stood on that stage and told the LGBTIQ youth of Utah how much they are loved and how much the world needs them, it took me a while to understand why all this exuberant celebration of my existence was making me more and more upset, until finally I realized that celebrating my existence is just the flip side of the coin from apologizing for my existence, and I'm so goddamned tired of apologizing for my existence.

Recently, a dear friend started dating someone. I was excited for my friend to be dating someone she likes, and anxious to meet him myself. My friend is Mormon, but pretty progressive in her attitudes toward sexuality and among the most supportive of my husband and me; she has defended us to more conservative Mormons on several occasions. This open-mindedness is typical of the Mormons I am still close to, for obvious reasons of self-selection on both sides, so it's easy for me to forget that many, many Mormons are not so open-minded. So when my husband and I stopped by our friend's house and the boyfriend and his kids were there, we nonchalantly introduced ourselves as husbands because, you know, that's just normal everyday life for us. I was distraught to hear after the fact that the boyfriend found our surprise introduction off-putting, because we didn't give him a chance to prepare his kids or to decide how to frame our relationship to them. In other words, he would have preferred to raise his kids in a world where we don't exist and was annoyed that he'd been forced to do otherwise, without his prior consent.

I want to be clear here: I believe my friend handled the situation in exactly the right way. She responded with empathy, understanding that his discomfort comes not from hatred but from ignorance and inexperience. He hasn't had much (if any) personal experience with queer people in his life, so all he has to go on is what he's learned at church--that gay people are choosing to live in sin, in opposition to God's plan. Of course he wants to protect his children from us! My friend understands that with time, experience, and love, her boyfriend will come around, just as most good people do when confronted with a reality that challenges previously-unchallenged beliefs. I also know that she is a good judge of character, so if she says he's a good guy and he'll figure it out, I believe her. I look forward to getting to know him, after he's done working through those issues. In the meantime, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt enough to be polite and kind, as I try to be with everyone.

What I discovered while she was telling me this, however, is that I no longer have it in me to feel empathy toward people who want to pretend I do not exist. Believe me, I understand where they are coming from. I came from that place myself, raised to believe that only part of me deserved to exist, that my existence would only be valid if I repressed and hid that part of me. I understand that worldview all too well--too well for my own good. I have worked for years to overcome that belief in myself and in others around me. I worked hard to prove to my family that the full me deserves to exist. I worked hard to prove to my in-laws that I deserve to exist in their son and brother's life. I continue to work hard to prove to my conservative Mormon community that I deserve to exist here, that I am a valuable member of their community just as deserving of my place in it as they are. In each case there have been people who accepted my existence from the start, some even before I did. In each case there have also been people who started out with the assumption that I was guilty until proven innocent, who were unsure of my value until I showed that, guess what?, I'm a pretty decent guy, as heathen sodomites go. I did my best in each case to approach these people with love and understanding, because I sincerely believe that is the most effective way to change hearts.

I still believe that's the most effective approach, but what I hadn't considered until this weekend is how much empathizing with those people while they debate whether or not I deserve to exist is damaging my psyche, how much it keeps me holding onto those old toxic beliefs about myself. As I looked out on the crowd at the LoveLoud festival, imagining that a large portion of them are good-hearted, progressive Mormons, most of whom likely had a change of heart within the last five, ten, maybe twenty years, often because they had a beloved family member come out to them and they were forced to confront the bigotry of their unexamined beliefs, I felt sincerely happy for what these people are doing, that they are making Utah a more loving place for queer people, but at the same time I couldn't help thinking, "I'm glad you all decided I deserve to exist, but I stopped listening when you tried to convince me you had a right to any opinion at all about my existence." I don't mean to be callous; you just can't let yourself care about people who question your right to exist, and still love yourself. Refusing to empathize with them is not being closed-minded; it's survival.

Lately I've been thinking about when we should and shouldn't be civil with our enemies, which at least partly comes down to a question of when we should and shouldn't try to empathize with our enemies, to understand them and love them as fellow human beings. I've decided this weekend that the right course for me is to do my best to interact lovingly with people who have opinions I disagree with, to be patient with them, to listen to them in an attempt to understand, to be open to the possibility that their position comes from ignorance instead of hate, and do what I can to gently help them be more loving--except in cases where those people hold opinions that are directly harmful to me. When others hold opinions that are toxic to people I care about but not to me personally--whether it's opinions that are harmful to women, to people of color, to indigenous people, to trans people, or to any other disadvantaged group I am not part of--I am likely to be upset, but I can manage my emotions enough to approach the conversation rationally and objectively, to listen carefully to my friends who are being hurt and do my best to help the hurters understand and stop. This is what Dan Reynolds is doing; as a straight, cis-gendered white man he has privilege that I do not, and he uses that privilege to speak up for me and others like me. With that privilege, he can approach those conversations with tact and love, inviting others to join him rather than vilifying them for not having already joined him, in ways that it just isn't healthy for me to do anymore. So can my friend with her boyfriend, and so can all those progressive, queer-friendly Mormons who filled that stadium.

So here's what I have to say to my straight allies: Thank you. Whether you came to the conclusion that the full me deserves to exist in the same world as you yesterday, last month, last year, or last century, I am glad you came to that conclusion. If you never questioned my existence, I am glad for that. If you did but you've had a change of heart, no matter how recently, I forgive you. If you feel so inclined to lovingly help the less open-hearted around you, I am most grateful to you for making the world a better place, one person at a time. But that is a fight I am done fighting. I will no longer fight for my existence. I will no longer apologize for my existence. I will no longer celebrate my existence, at least not any more or less than any conscious being should celebrate the wonder of their own existence. From now on I'm just going to exist as if I live in a world where my existence isn't up for debate. Those of you who aren't living in that world yet can join me when you get here.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Secret First Meeting of Mr. Fob and Radon Spaceman

Ten years ago today, I met the man who would later become my husband. I don't remember talking to him at all, and we certainly didn't flirt--we were both married to other people at the time, he was fully closeted, and I was only halfway out--but we did, technically, meet.

It was the summer of 2008. My wife and I were in the process of moving from Seattle, Washington, to Davis, California, so logically we spent a month in Utah. She and I were both active bloggers at the time--she went by FoxyJ and I went by Mr. Fob, because this was before using your real name on the internet was cool--and we had a number of blog friends we saw in real life only rarely, as well as several we'd never met. To remedy both problems, we occasionally held blog parties where we invited these random strangers to meet us in person and eat food together. Considering that a large number of our blog followers knew of us because we'd been featured in a news article about gay Mormon bloggers in mixed-orientation marriages, which made us rather unpopular among conservative Mormons and liberal gay people alike, I suppose we're lucky none of the potluck food was poisoned.

One of the blog friends who came to the party we threw that summer at Kiwanis Park in Provo went by the blogonym Kristeee (you'll never guess what her real name is). She had been following both mine and Foxy's blogs since 2006, which I would learn much later was not long after she'd gotten married--in 2005. Her husband, whom I will call Radon Spaceman because it wouldn't be right for him to have a real name when none of the rest of us do, had told her before they got married that he was attracted to men but wanted to marry her anyway because, you know, Mormonism, so when Kristeee came across FoxyJ's blog through mutual blog friends, then learned that Foxy and I were living the same story much more publicly, she grabbed a bowl of popcorn and got comfy. I didn't know any of this at the time--as far as I knew, Kristeee was just some random Mormon mommy blogger who happened upon our blogs and thought we were cool.

So Kristeee came to our blog party and she dragged Radon Spaceman along. I remember meeting them. I remember talking to her a bit, since she was the one I knew online. I'm pretty sure I noticed that her husband was attractive; they would have had a seven-month-old baby with them, and I have a soft spot for men with small children as well as for very Mormon-looking men, so he would have checked off both of those boxes for me. At the time, though, I wouldn't have done anything more than notice a guy was attractive, and if anything that would have made me less likely to talk to him because I'd have felt intimidated. For his part, he was aloof. He was very Mormon (in beliefs as well as looks) and very closeted, and didn't know what to make of this strange guy who was openly gay while still in a committed, monogamous, straight marriage.

Kristeee, Baby K, and Radon Spaceman circa 2008.

It was probably for the best that we didn't connect at the time. I had a habit of forming friendships with guys, then wishing it could be something more, and I definitely didn't need any more of that anxiety at the time. Now that Radon Spaceman and I are happily married, I'm glad there's no question that our relationship started after our previous marriages were over. It was, in fact, another four and a half years before we met again, this time through OKCupid. At that point we only vaguely remembered having met each other previously, but I did have the advantage of going into that first date with the recommendation of Kristeee, who correctly guessed that Radon Spaceman and I would get along well.

FoxyJ and I with other fobulous blog friends at that 2008 blog party.

My one regret? We have no photo of us meeting that first time. I have other photos from the blog party, but none of Kristeee or Radon Spaceman. So the moral of the story is this: Always take photos with every random stranger you meet. You never know when you'll end up marrying them.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

My America

Patriotism has never sat well with me. I dislike the sentiment that America is the greatest country in the world because while patting ourselves on the back it insults everyone else, because it's a statement based in irrational emotion and not on measurable fact, and because there is and always has been so much about America that is not great--racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, economic inequality, political and religious tribalism, and on and on. I dislike the association patriotism has with the values of Republican, Christian, gun-toting, MAGA-hat wearing, straight, white, cisgendered people because I don't identify with those values.

While at a Janelle Monáe concert this past weekend, though, I realized that maybe there is a version of patriotism that I can get behind. In her song "Crazy Classic Life," Monáe describes herself as "young, black, wild, and free," then proclaims, "I am not America's nightmare / I am the American dream." I love how she, as a queer black woman, reclaims the traditional narrative of the American dream, the belief that all men and women are created equal, and insists that dream is not the property of straight white men. This vision of America is one that I find worth celebrating.

I celebrate the Enlightenment ideals of reason and equality that America was founded on. I celebrate the good that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and the other founding fathers gave us. I can do so while at the same time condemning the way they enslaved Africans, slaughtered Native Americans and stole their land, and treated women as property. The founding fathers may have been too ignorant to recognize the irony and the limitations of their version of "all men are created equal," but the system they built on principles of democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion made way for future generations to take what they left us and make it better. That is my America.

I celebrate Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and their fellow Sufragettes who led the movement to give women a voice in America's government. I celebrate Gloria Steinem, Betty Frieden, and other leaders of the women's liberation movement. I celebrate Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other women who have fought for women's rights within our legal system. I celebrate writers and artists like Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Nina Simone, and Beyoncé who speak to the experiences of black American women. I celebrate Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Michelle Obama. I celebrate Roe v. Wade. I celebrate the #MeToo movement and the Women's March. This is my America.

I celebrate Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and others who led us to the abolition of slavery in the United States. I celebrate Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. I celebrate Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and others who have fought for the rights and lives of indigenous people. I celebrate Joan Baez, Cesar Chavez, Nydia Velazquez, and others who have spoken out and fought for Latinos. I celebrate Margaret Cho, Maxine Hong Kingston, and George Takei. I celebrate Queen Liliʻuokalani, Duke Kahanamoku, Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, Kealiʻi Reichel, and others who have worked to preserve native Hawaiian culture and values. I celebrate Loving v. Virginia. I celebrate the Black Lives Matter movement. I celebrate the Families Belong Together marches that took place across the country this past weekend. This is my America.

I celebrate Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and others who led the Stonewall Riots that ignited the flames of the LGBTIQ rights movement. I celebrate Harvey Milk, José Sarria, and Chad Griffin. I celebrate Sylvia Mock, Dan Savage, Ellen Degeneres, and Anderson Cooper. I celebrate United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges. I celebrate the Trevor Project, the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and other organizations that continue to fight for the lives and rights of queer people. I celebrate the Provo Pride festival, the Encircle LGBTQ+ Family & Youth Resource Center, and the LoveLoud Festival, which have created safe places to celebrate sexual and gender diversity in my conservative community. This is my America.

I celebrate similar progress that has been made in other countries all over the world. I celebrate those of my fellow Americans who see beyond our national pride and our tribalism to recognize ways that others may be doing better than us in areas such as education, healthcare, and human rights, and seek to apply those lessons learned toward making America greater than it currently is or ever has been. I celebrate immigrants and the strengths they bring to America.

Janelle Monáe ended her concert the other night with the song "Americans," which includes this powerful speech (emphasis mine):
Let me help you in here
Until women can get equal pay for equal work
This is not my America
Until same gender loving people can be who they are
This is not my America
Until black people can come home from a police stop
Without being shot in the head
This is not my America
Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful
This is not my America
I can't hear nobody talkin' to me 
Until Latinos and Latinas don't have to run from walls
This is not my America
But I tell you today that the devil is a liar
Because it's gon' be my America before it's all over
I celebrate an America that not only allows for voices of dissent, but listens to those voices of dissent. I celebrate an America where diversity makes us stronger. I celebrate what we are and I celebrate what we can become. This is my America.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Janelle Monáe Loves Me

My husband and I were so excited to see Janelle Monáe in concert last night that we dyed our hair pink in honor of her song "Pynk." On the way to the show, I joked that if she didn't specifically pick me out from the crowd and tell me she likes my hair, I'd be offended. Spoiler alert: She didn't call out me or my hair or, as far as I was aware, even notice me, but she created a concert experience so perfectly tailored to my tastes that it felt as if I'd been singled out.

Obviously the reason I went to the concert is that I like her music, and her performance in that regard did not disappoint. She performed every single song from her newest album, Dirty Computer, and several of her older hits like "Tightrope" and "Q.U.E.E.N.," and delivered beautiful vocals filled with sincere passion on each song. Whether singing the warm, fuzzy melodies of "Pynk" or rapping the hard truths of "Django Jane," her delivery was virtually flawless. Her band, likewise, is made up of talented live performers in their own right. I've heard from friends who were frustrated by the poor acoustics of the venue, with the extreme volumes interacting badly with the small space, but thankfully I'm an old man who can't tolerate concert volumes in even the best of acoustic situations, so I go prepared with earplugs and they served me well last night.

Another of the things I love about Janelle Monáe is that she is an extraordinarily talented dancer, which makes her music videos delightful to watch. Last night I was so caught up in the music that I kept on forgetting about this other talent of hers. Then she and her backup dancers would do something amazing, and each time it was like discovering this thing I love about her all over again. Nowhere was this more pronounced for me than in her performance of "Make Me Feel," which included an extended instrumental intro accompanied by a mesmerizing solo dance routine. My friend David captured part of that enthralling routine on video:


Speaking of things that make Janelle Monáe's music videos awesome, I would be remiss if I didn't mention her sense of style. She is always dressed in costumes that are uniquely her and surrounded by sets that complement her look perfectly, all comprised of bold color palettes that I could stare at for hours. Her live performance lived up to this high standard, with each costume and set chosen carefully to match the song. When her attendants dressed her in robes of royalty as they brought out her throne for "Django Jane," it felt like watching a queen being crowned.

The way Monáe presents herself as royalty--equal parts self-love, confidence, and "fuck you" to anyone who would think less of her because she is a queer black woman--is inspiring. 

Another thing I love about Janelle Monáe is that she is an album artist. Many albums are simply a collection of songs, and there's nothing wrong with that--I love a great song--but I especially love when musical artists release albums that tell a story when experienced as a collective, larger piece of art. Monáe's ArchAndroid did that for me, and she did it again with Dirty Computer; both are albums where I enjoy having the individual songs come up in my random mix of music I like, but I will also play the album from start to finish in order to enjoy that experience. When the concert started last night with the album intro, "Dirty Computer," playing as she came on stage, and then she proceeded to perform the next four songs off the album in order, I thought, "Wow, that's a fun way to do a concert, but will she play any of her old stuff?" Then she took a break from the album to play some older songs, then came back to the current album, and back and forth for the rest of the concert. She effectively performed the entire album with commercial breaks for previous hits, and in album order with the exception of the hit single "Make Me Feel" and "I Got the Juice," which appear together toward the middle of the album but she pushed closer to the end for the concert. I have never admired the order of a concert set list as much as I did last night.

It's common at concerts to see audience members singing along, and that was especially pronounced last night--it seemed like everybody there knew every word to every song. This fact made me self-conscious of how bad I am at remembering the lyrics even to songs I listen to over and over. As I awkardly sang along with half of every line last night, though, I realized this is just how I enjoy music. I'm not great at memorizing words, but I love lyrics for their meaning; I appreciate well-executed form, but I thrive on meaningful, thought-provoking content. This is, of course, one of the things I love about Janelle Monáe--the ideas so powerfully expressed in her lyrics--and the concert did not disappoint in this regard. From the line "I am not the American nightmare / I am the American dream" in the first song she performed, "Crazy Classic Life," to "This is a cold war / You better know what you're fighting for" in "Cold War" to "Hold on, don't fight your war alone" in the final song of the evening, "Americans," Monáe had me thinking about what it means to be an American and what it means to be part of a society of deeply flawed people trying to make the world better despite our frequent screw-ups.

Finally, what I love most about Janelle Monáe is that the core of her message is about love--love for self and love for others. She demonstrated that love throughout the concert, but never more so than during "I Like That," an anthem to self-love and individuality, when she paused to scan across the audience and call out things she liked about specific people. "Ooh, I like your bow tie." "I like your outfit." "I like your hair." Sadly, she did not look at me and tell me she liked my pynk hair, but the message of love and acceptance was received all the same. Thank you, Janelle Monáe.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The "C" Word

When I was a kid, my mom and my adult sisters fought a lot--and very loudly. Their frequent shouting matches were an ongoing source of stress for me. I hated it so much that by the time I was nine or ten, I started mediating their fights, doing my best to calmly explain each of their perspectives to the other in an attempt to find a place of mutual understanding and, most importantly to me, peace and quiet. I became known as the peacemaker in my family. At the time I took pride in this role and the compliments I received for my mediation skills. Looking back now, I find it a little troubling that my mother allowed this weight to be put on such a young child's shoulders, but it is what it is and I am who I am in part because of those experiences.

Lately, being on social media feels like living in that home, where people are constantly yelling at each other and I just really want everyone to get along and be nice. And by "lately," I mean for as long as the internet has existed. I don't claim innocence here; 2008, when I'd just moved to California and Prop 8 was on the ballot, was a particularly low point for me as far as online civility goes. Even before that, I had my fair share of virtual battles with both friends and strangers I disagreed with. Perhaps because of the conflict-related trauma I'd felt as a child, each new online confrontation produced an intense physical reaction in me, where my body would tremble as if I were dying of hypothermia, regardless of the temperature. I would dread checking my email to find a notification of another comment in an ongoing argument, but keep checking anyway, out of some masochistic compulsion.

In the past ten years I've developed coping strategies to deal with conflict both online and in real life while keeping my emotional health intact, because the reality is that conflict is part of living with other people, and avoiding it often leads to more problems. In the case of online conflict, I continue to find value in engaging with people I disagree with, despite the widely-held belief that there's no point in discussing controversial issues online because no one ever changes their mind anyway. I used to share this belief, but I realized a few years ago that on several occasions I've argued with someone online and absolutely refused to give them any ground, only to find myself weeks, months, or years later recalling their words and, removed from the heat of the moment, recognizing that they maybe kind of had a point. And if I do that, surely I'm not the only one? Besides, as I said in my little allegory the other day, the alternative is not talking to each other, and I don't think that's going to solve any problems.

If anything, the solution to our problems is talking to each other more. Social media makes it all too easy for us to unfollow or unfriend those we disagree with, those whose opinions we find repulsive, and as a result those people become more and more "other" to us, to the point where they're barely human. Our congress (speaking for the United States here because I'm not as familiar with politics elsewhere) doesn't get anything done because the two sides just yell at each other and no one is willing to listen. Sadly, this is a case where our representatives are actually doing a good job of representing us; if we can't talk to each other civilly, how do we expect them to?

Oh, crap. I said the "C" word. Civility is not a popular concept among my fellow liberals lately. And I get it, I promise I really do. In a world where the U.S. president regularly slings horribly offensive insults at his opponents and openly incites his followers to violence, why should we treat his supporters with civility? When children are being put in cages, why the hell does it matter how civil we are in our attempts to get them out? Those arguments are absolutely valid. But if you've made it this far in the post, will you bear with me a little longer?

(Apologies to those who find this word offensive.)

First, let me say this: If being "uncivil" is the best tool you have to get those children out of those cages, then by all means be uncivil. At the same time, while we're doing whatever is necessary to resolve the crisis at hand (and I do not pretend this particular crisis is resolved), I find it valuable to self-reflect on the way we solve problems, and consider whether there are better ways for us to achieve our goals. Sometimes the answer will be "no," but it's still a question worth asking. That's how we progress and make the human race better.

I'm not going to argue that you should treat your enemies civilly because they deserve it; I know that isn't a convincing argument when you're justifiably horrified that someone is doing or saying something that hurts you or people you care about. Rather, I would argue for civility for more practical reasons:
  1. Civility is often the most efficient solution to a social problem. Not always the quickest solution, mind you, but efficient in the sense of achieving results without creating new problems. If I really want you to do something, I can persuade you with reason or I can hit you over the head and force you to do what I want. Both can be effective, and violence might even achieve results sooner, but the second I turn my back, you're likely to retaliate. 
  2. If we are only civil with people who are civil with us, this cycle of incivility is just going to continue indefinitely. Currently, the right is accusing the left of being uncivil. The left responds by saying we've put up with Trump's incivility for two years--it's about time you guys get a taste of your own medicine! The right responds by saying Trump's incivility is just a reaction to years and years of the left's intellectual elite mocking and bullying middle America. The left responds that our mocking and bullying is just a response to centuries of racism, sexism, and homophobia. And on and on and on. We can argue about who started this, like two bickering children, but I'm more interested in who's going to end it. 
  3. If my worldview/philosophy/religion/political party is really the best one, I'll make a more convincing argument by showing you than by telling you. The way I show you is by being a decent human being, by living according to the values of compassion and empathy that I preach. Does this mean I lie down and let you stomp on my rights or the rights of others? No. I can firmly assert our rights and demand change without resorting to the hatred and vitriol I find so repulsive in my opponents. 
  4. Aggression is a product of toxic masculinity. For virtually all of recorded history, the world has been ruled by men with frail egos and big swords who enforce their will through violence. Admittedly, I'll take verbal violence over physical violence any day, but isn't it about time we tried something else entirely? Can we give soft power a chance? 
I look forward to a future where all of humanity's problems can and will be solved through civil discourse, but I recognize we aren't there yet. If a man is pointing a gun at my children, I'll do what I can to gently talk him out of shooting and I sure as hell won't say anything to provoke him, but you know I'll be watching for the soonest opportunity to get that gun out of his hands by whatever means necessary. If I also have a gun and I can shoot him without putting my children in greater risk than they already are, I will shoot. Given violent problems, sometimes violence is the only solution. 

With that in mind, I'll make one request: When you need to punch, punch up; don't punch down. I only became familiar with this rule of comedy recently, when reading some of the responses to Michelle Wolf's White House Correspondents' speech. The idea is that productive satire punches up by making fun of those in power, thus shining light on their abuses of power. Comedy that punches down, making fun of the powerless, just reinforces the systems that oppress them. Given this framework, if you need to be uncivil, be uncivil toward those in power--politicians--not toward the people who voted for them. If what we liberals believe about Trump is true, then his supporters, complicit as they may be in his electoral victory and in verbally defending his latest atrocity du jour, are just as much his victims as the rest of us are. Yes, minorities and immigrants are his explicit targets, but in the long run no one benefits from a Trump presidency but the very rich (and primarily Trump himself). (And if what you conservatives believe is true, we liberals need to be brought to the light, not hit over the head with it.)

As for the incident that sparked this latest debate about civility? When I heard about Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave the Red Hen, my first response was sadistic glee at someone I think is pretty horrible getting her just desserts (while being denied dessert, ha ha). My second response was that I really don't want to live in a world where I have to fear that I might be turned away from a business because of who I am, and while I see a big difference between working for Donald Trump (a choice) and being gay (not a choice), I know a lot of conservatives don't see that difference, and in a world where the right to discriminate has been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, I fear retaliation. When I got married three years ago, every time I had to explain to a vendor that my fiance was a man, I tensed in anticipation of their reaction. Thankfully no one refused us service, but the looming threat added stress to an already stressful situation. But, despite that fear, after reading others' opinions of the Red Hen situation over the past few days, I've come to the conclusion that the owner did not behave uncivilly. She exercised her right to protest, and she directed her protest at a government representative, not a civilian. She punched up, not down.

As for me, I will continue my attempts to engage civilly with people I disagree with, even those whose opinions I find repulsive and contrary to my most deeply held beliefs. I hope that, with time, our collective efforts to do so will pay off in a more harmonious civilization where we work together to find solutions to our problems through consensus and compromise. What say you, friends? Is this a hopeless effort? What value do you see in civility? When do you think it's appropriate to forget about civility and embrace a more aggressive approach? Tell me what you think. (But please don't yell. The nine-year-old child in me just wants the yelling to stop.)

Monday, June 25, 2018

Nothing but a Flashlight and a Map

Hey! Hello there! I'm Ben. I just got here. Well, relatively speaking. I mean, I've been here about thirty-eight years, as far as I remember. I don't remember anything before here, just that I was suddenly here and it was dark and cold and scary and I really didn't know what this "here" place was or why I was here or what I was supposed to be doing here. I still don't, to be honest, but I had a flashlight and some nice people gave me a map, so I've been exploring. The map looked really old and it looked like a lot of people had been adding to it over the years--some features had been added in different colored inks, some features had been scratched out or erased, and there were several notes written all over the map in different handwriting. I've been using the map to help me explore this place and don't get me wrong, it's better than not having a map, but this thing is not accurate. Like, one time I was following a trail to where the map said there was a big treasure chest full of gold and silver and diamonds, but all I found when I got there was a big pile of manure. I added a note to the map so I'd remember not to go that way again. The map did help me avoid that big pit over there, so like I said it's not worthless, but I get the impression that the people who made the map were just like me, wandering around in this massive, dark place with nothing but a flashlight, and maybe an old map someone gave them. I don't think they were giving me bad information on purpose--at least not most of them--but you try mapping a place this big when all you have is a flashlight.


Oh, you are trying? Hey, I have an idea: What if we work together? You keep wandering, shining your flashlight wherever you go, and making notes on your map. I'll do the same, and next time we run into each other we can compare notes. I can see you're hesitant. I get it. I'm sure there were things on the map they gave you that led you astray, and you don't want to make that mistake again--putting too much trust in another wanderer who, after all, is just another guy with a flashlight. Maybe I see something that looks like a monster, but actually it's just a shadow. Maybe I find the perfect chair to sit down and take a break, but the chair is too hard or too soft for you. Believe me, I understand. So how about this? Let's agree up front that each of us gets to decide what we add to our own map. Like maybe when you share your notes with me, I'll pencil them in on my map, but only if they make sense based on what I've seen for myself. I'll let you know if I find something that contradicts one of your notes, and I hope you'll do the same for me, but let's agree right now that this isn't about proving one of us is right and the other is wrong; it's about working together, sharing our resources to figure this place out.

Hey, isn't that much better? This information-sharing thing you and I have going is really working out, and I feel like my understanding of this place is exponentially better thanks to the combined benefit of two flashlights, two maps, and two explorers. Which has me thinking… As I've been wandering around, I saw a lot of other flashlights out there. Like, way more than just you and me. Enough that it's hard to go anywhere without bumping into someone. What say we invite others to join our little exploration party? Same agreement--each of us does our own thing, finds what we can find with our own flashlights and our own maps, and reports back. That’s got to improve each of our chances of creating a map that approximates the real thing, right? Okay, let's give this a shot.

Oh. Oh, hey. Whoa. Sorry, didn't see you there. Ow! That was my toe. Hey, ow, um, uh, ah--dang, it's crowded in here, isn't it? And so loud! Why is everyone yelling? I don't… Oh, crap, is he hitting her with his map? But that wasn't--Hey! What are you guys doing to each other? What's--

HEY! STOP IT!

Hey guys. Sorry to yell at you. I don't mean to be a jerk. That's really not how I wanted this to go. I'm sorry, guys. This wasn't the deal. Remember we were all in this together? We were just trying to figure this place out? I feel like we've gotten off track. And, I've got to be honest, I'm just as guilty as any of us are. I got caught up in what I had on my map and I so strongly disagreed with what you folks over there were putting on your maps and when I realized things weren't going as I intended and people were getting hurt I kind of panicked and then everyone was yelling and I felt like no one was listening to me so I yelled louder and--

Well, here we are. I'm sorry if I was a jerk to you. I will try to do better. Please let me know if I screw up again.

So where do we go from here? The way I see it, we have three options:

  • We keep doing what we're doing. I mean, I guess that's an option, but you know what they say about doing the same thing and expecting different results..
  • We call the whole thing off. We tried. It didn't work. Oh well. I'll go back to wandering around with my flashlight and map and you go back to wandering around with yours, and we'll just keep our findings to ourselves. Except. Except there are still a ton of us in here, and we're just going to keep bumping into each other as we wander around in the dark, trying to figure out what this place is. I'm not sure how not talking to each other will help anything.
  • OR, we keep trying, but with renewed emphasis on our shared mission to make sense of this place, and maybe a few general rules of conduct we can agree on. I propose the following:
    • Remember, it's not about being right. We're all in this together. If you show me that something on my map doesn't match up with what you've seen with your flashlight, it's in my best interest to check it out and, if I agree with your conclusion, to change my map. Me insisting my map is right just because it's my map really does me no good.
    • We all need to agree to listen at least as much as we talk. Like, 50/50 split as a bare minimum. But really, I've just got one flashlight and there are seven billion other flashlights out there, so I'd probably be better off listening way more than I talk.
    • Okay, so we're all talking and we're all listening. What else? Is it too much to ask that we be kind to each other? I mean, I get that we can't be kind all the time. Like, when my flashlight caught that man hitting that woman, my immediate priority wasn't being kind to the man. But let's at least agree to be kind whenever we can?
    • If kindness feels like too much, then let's at least agree not to hurt others on purpose, and to listen when people tell us we're hurting them unintentionally. 

What do you say? Am I being unreasonable? How about this? I'm not going to put a gun to your head and make you agree to these rules. That would kind of go against the spirit of the whole thing, don't you think? Instead, I'll just do my part: I'll keep searching through this place, sharing my observations with anyone who's interested, and I'll listen to anyone who wants to share their observations with me. I'll do my best to be kind, and not to hurt anyone. I think this is the best way to figure this place out, but the whole point is that we all have different opinions, so I'll do me and you do you. And if you want to join my little party, you are more than welcome, so long as you play nice with the rest of us. Happy exploring!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Unruly

Last month when my fourteen-year-old daughter got dress-coded at school for having colored hair and then her petition to change the dress code went mini-viral among some of our local friends, I learned something about myself: I don't see any value in following rules just because they are rules. This has not always been true; I have spent most of my life as a rule-follower by nature. So much, in fact, that even now I only break rules when I make a conscious, deliberate decision to do so. My default is still to follow rules just because my brain is used to believing that's what you're supposed to do. But I no longer assign any moral value to following rules, per se.

I found this image randomly on the internet. I love that they chose a robot as their mascot for rule-following. I was a good little robot for much of my life, doing exactly what I was programmed to do.

This realization dawned on me as I read comments on my friends' posts about the dress code situation, and I saw how many of my friends' friends interpreted it as a moral issue: It was unambiguously clear to them that the right thing to do, even if you disagree with a school's dress code, is to follow it because it's the rule. In their eyes, I was a horrible father for allowing my daughter to dye her hair when that was against the rules, and the "right" way to do it would have been to first try to change the rule, then dye her hair. I see two problems with that logic:
  1. I was aware of the rule, but I wasn't sure it would be enforced. It's very common for old, outdated rules to still be on the books even though no one enforces them anymore because we recognize the rules no longer serve a purpose (or never did). If the rule wasn't going to be enforced, as I believed would be the case if the principal were a reasonable person conscious of the fact that we're living in the 21st century, then I wasn't going to bother making a fuss. 
  2. As far as I was concerned, the rule was not valid. The school has no right to tell my daughter what color her hair needs to be, because they do not own her body. She does. As such, I felt no need to ask for permission before I allowed her to exercise her right to do whatever she wants with her own body. 
See, here's the thing. Rules are not inviolable laws of the universe. They're agreements to behave in certain ways because we want to achieve certain effects. As humanity learns and progresses, we realize that some rules serve the purpose we created them for, and others don't. The ones that don't, we change. There are many ways to change rules, depending on the rule, the system that enforces the rule, and your position within that system. One tried and true way of changing rules is to break them. If enough people break the rule and we collectively see that the system doesn't fall apart, then the system is forced to reconsider the rule's purpose and value. The risk of taking this approach is that you may have to suffer system-imposed consequences of breaking the rule until it's changed. I made sure my daughter understood this before dyeing her hair and, as it turned out, she was faced with consequences: The principal told her she had to choose between covering up the dyed hair with natural-color dye or not participating in the end-of-year awards ceremony and other activities. I made it clear to my daughter that this was not a moral decision with a right and wrong answer; it was a matter of what compromises she was willing to make in order to be allowed continued participation in the system. She chose to cover up the bright colors in order to attend the awards ceremony, and did so for two days until we successfully changed the dress code. As far as I'm concerned, my daughter behaved ethically and responsibly throughout the ordeal, and her approach proved effective as she achieved her goal: Future students at the school will no longer be subjected to this silly, outdated rule. 

Human laws, of course, are just rules that a large group of people have agreed on. Just like any other rule, laws are only valuable so long as we agree they are valuable. For example, we tend to think of the choice to smoke marijuana or not as a moral issue because we're so used to it being illegal, but the fact that it is no longer illegal in several states and countries around the world shows just how arbitrary the law is. Those who do not believe it immoral to smoke pot and want to do so but live in places where it's illegal, then, have not a moral choice but a choice between potential consequences: 
  1. Choose not to smoke because they don't want to suffer the consequences of breaking the law.
  2. Choose to smoke knowing that they risk suffering the consequences of breaking the law. 
Either choice is a valid choice, and of course there are a lot of factors to consider that will be different for each individual. For example, if you are a black man in America then statistically speaking the risk you take when breaking the law is greater than the risk a white person faces when breaking the same law because black men are much more likely to receive tougher sentencing. If you're a minor, the choice to smoke pot or not carries with it not only legal risks but also health risks, as studies suggest marijuana use during teenage years can negatively impact brain development

Image result for no marijuana
Don't do drugs, kids. Adults, I sincerely do not care whether you do drugs, so long as you aren't hurting anybody. 

We've seen this divide between the rules-for-rules'-sake mindset and the rules-so-long-as-they-serve-a-purpose mindset in the response to the recent immigration crisis. To those who see following rules as a moral issue, the immigrants who broke the law by entering the United States illegally were simply suffering the consequences of breaking the law, and that happened to include their children being locked up in cages. These "illegals" had behaved immorally and it was not our place to remove the consequence of that choice any more than it would be our place to stop God from punishing a sinner (although now that I think about it, I recall there being a guy in Christian theology who did exactly that--a guy Christians are supposedly trying to be like...). For those of us who believe rules and laws are arbitrary and malleable, we're more likely to question whether the law these immigrants are being punished for violating is valid in the first place, and to conclude, if nothing else, that in this case the punishment far outweighed the severity of the crime. 

So that's my take on rules, laws, dress codes, pot, and immigration. What do you think? Does this kind of thinking inevitably lead to chaos and the downfall of civilization? Alternatively, am I giving rules too much credit and really we'd be better off without them entirely? What rules or laws do you break regularly? Do you break speed limit laws when driving? I want to hear your thoughts, and I promise to be nice even if we disagree--that's a rule I try hard not to break. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Great Social Catalyst


I was on my way to write a blog post about the good and bad of social media, but of course I had to check in on Facebook first, and when I did I came across the above video. If you don't feel like taking three and a half minutes to watch it, the concept is that there's this bar where people behave like we do on social media--randomly declaring political beliefs, talking at each other without listening in return, fighting over every little thing, and generally being mean. Basically, social media brings out the worst in humanity. 

I can't disagree with any of the criticisms this video makes--and it's far from the first to make them. I mean, you don't have to look any further than the current American president's Twitter account to see how social media can bring out the worst in humanity. But clearly there is still value in social media. If at least some part of you didn't think so, you wouldn't still be here. 

Here's what I believe: Future generations will look back at the advent of social media as a turning point in humanity's history that ultimately led to a far greater sense of connectedness across formerly insurmountable boundaries of distance, culture, language, religion, and politics. Social media will be the catalyst that pushes the human race beyond tribalism and toward truly thinking of ourselves as a single global community. Optimistic, you say? Yes, yes it is. (That's kind of my schtick.)

But social media certainly has the potential to be this catalyst. Among my Facebook friends I have coworkers thousands of miles from me in the Philippines, Australia, the UK, and all around the US; PTA and neighborhood friends here in Utah, most of whom are very religious and relatively conservative; mostly liberal friends from my college years spent with fellow humanities and then library science students; and friends who are gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, and two spirit. (This is not an exhaustive list; sorry if I left you out.) Just like every other human, I'm likely to interact more with those I have more in common with--whether geography, culture, politics, religion, or a similar sense of humor--but I still see those posts from the friends who are less like me. Sometimes those posts connect with me, regardless of our differences; sometimes I'm just not interested in a post so I keep scrolling; and of course sometimes someone says something political or religious that presses my button in just the wrong way, and sometimes I do better than others at either engaging civilly or shutting up and walking away. But whatever my reaction, I see those posts, and every time I do, my worldview expands just a little bit. I get a glimpse into the daily lives of people who are different from me, and more importantly I get a glimpse into their minds. I will never see President Trump the way his supporters do, but thanks to a few of my Facebook friends I have a pretty good idea of how they perceive him. That, as far as I'm concerned, is a major value that social media adds to my life. 

Social media is still relatively new, in terms of the history of human evolution, and we're still figuring out how to navigate this new landscape. We're not used to being so exposed to each other's raw emotions and often-unfiltered thoughts. If the human race had suddenly discovered telepathy, we'd be having the same problem. But telepathy would not only expose us to each other's darkest, meanest, ugliest inner selves; it would also expose us to each other's most loving, most vulnerable, most beautiful inner selves. We would come to see not only our neighbor's anger, but also the reasons for their anger. And we would see their love. Social media can do that too. Social media can help us understand our fellow humans who are different from us in ways that we've never had such easy access to before. 

Image result for jean grey dark phoenix
At least with social media we don't run the risk of possession by an evil alien psychic force.
Or whatever the whole Dark Phoenix thing was. Sue me, I'm a DC guy. 

We just need to learn to treat a name and a profile picture the same as we treat a human being--because, guess what, they are a human being! It wouldn't surprise me if this comes much easier to future generations who grow up in this brave new world than it does to us. But in the meantime, maybe we can all just try extra hard to be a little nicer, and to listen at least as much as we talk? With that in mind, it's now my turn to listen: What do you say, friend? What can we all do to make social media a positive force in humanity's evolution? Or do you believe social media is inherently detrimental? (And if so, why are you here?) Please comment below or on Facebook--I want to hear your thoughts via this fancy telepathic technology Mark Zuckerberg and Al Gore gave us. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Bigotry By Omission

The other day I was at a junior high school PTSA meeting where we were about to vote in next year's president. The sole nominee (there's typically only one person willing to do the job, so it's not a traditional election in the sense of voting for one candidate over another) was a man, which is unusual for any PTA or PTSA, at least here in Utah. Having served previously on another PTA as treasurer and then president, and planning to serve alongside this particular presidential nominee as his treasurer, I'm a big fan of men being more involved in PTA. Studies show that children benefit from having male role models involved in their school life, but for some reason a lot of fathers seem to group school involvement into the long list of parenting responsibilities they're happy to let mothers take care of.

At any rate, at this particular PTSA meeting we were enjoying a delicious lunch that the current president had prepared. This president had taken it on herself to serve lunch at every meeting, as a way to incentivize attendance and to share her love of food. So we're eating this tasty pasta salad and we're about to vote on next year's president and I raise my hand to ask, jokingly, whether the nominee can make food this good, because I want to make an informed vote. Everyone laughs and he says that actually, he does enjoy baking with his wife. Later in that same meeting, a visitor spoke to us about her current campaign to be on the school board. I revived my previous joke by asking about her cooking skills. Everyone laughed again and the candidate just rolled her eyes and went on. 

It didn't take me long to start feeling skeezy about my joke--especially the second instance, where it was delivered to a woman. In my mind, I was showing my appreciation for the current president's work to prepare food for us while demonstrating my belief that expectations should be the same for any PTSA president, regardless of gender. What I didn't consider until after the fact is that I was making the joke within the context of a culture where women are often valued only for traditionally feminine skills such as cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. Coming from one of two men in a room full of women, my joke could have easily been understood to imply that when it comes to a position of power in a female-dominated organization like PTA, all that matters is how well you can cook. Hopefully anyone who knows me well would recognize that wasn't my intent--I have first-hand knowledge of the hard work and organizational skills required of a PTA president, and I've seen the experience and knowledge needed to serve successfully on a school board--but few people in that room knew me very well and it's never safe to assume everyone will give you the benefit of the doubt when you've said something potentially offensive. Ultimately, it's my responsibility to consider my audience, consider the context, and communicate effectively. If someone in that room was offended by my joke, it's my fault; I should know better. 

In the church I was raised in, we were taught that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. The former are things you do--murder, rape, drinking coffee--and the latter are things you don't do--not helping someone in need of help, not being kind, not giving a tenth of your income to the church. I have a pretty different idea now of what is and isn't sinful, but I still find the idea of commission versus omission valuable. It's very, very common for people to say sexist, racist, or otherwise bigoted things, then get upset when others call them out on it, insisting, "But that's not how I meant it!" And then they go on to list all the horrible things they don't do to whatever underprivileged group they've unintentionally offended: "It's not like I go around beating up gay people or calling you fags. Save your anger for the real bad guys!" To that defense, I say: Thank you for meeting the bare minimum requirement of human decency. You are not a bigot by commission. But if you--if we--want to be better, then we need to be more careful not to commit bigotry by omission: not considering that something we say or do might be offensive. When interacting with or talking about an underprivileged group that we are not part of, we owe it to them to do our best to understand their context enough to actively avoid making their lives worse. Sure, I might mean no offense, but if 99 people before me said the exact same thing and did mean to offend (or simply didn't care who might get hurt so long as it wasn't them), then I don't get a pass for having good intentions. 

Image Source
Image source: A pretty great comic that makes my point probably better than I do. 

I understand that a lot of people are tired of feeling like everything they say is subject to inspection by the political correctness police. This is why Donald Trump is president. But you know what? If you show that you're making a genuine effort to be a kind, understanding human being then others won't feel the need to "police" you, even when you screw up. People say unintentionally heterosexist things to me all the time, and in the majority of cases I can see that they mean well because they've done or said other things to show kindness toward me, so I don't let it bother me. I don't want to spend all my time being upset any more than you want to spend all your time worrying about who might be upset at you, so show me you're trying and I'll meet you in the middle. So I guess I am willing to give you a pass for good intentions, so long as I can see them through your other words and actions, and so long as you're willing to listen, apologize, and change when I point out that you're doing something hurtful enough to warrant my speaking up about it. 

And I'll do the same. I'm going to send an apology to that school board candidate. I honestly don't know whether she gave my stupid joke a second thought, but when it comes to showing that I'm an ally to people from underprivileged groups, I'd rather err on the side of being overly cautious than on that of being obliviously hurtful. 

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.