"This is just my life…"

“People look at me, and have fear and sadness in their eyes, which they think they’re seeing reflected back at them. They wouldn’t see what I’m really feeling, which is, ‘I’m OK!’ But people are afraid. I did an interview with Larry King and it was a little more disjointed and fractured than usual, and I realized that it was the first time I’d talked to him since my diagnosis and that he was afraid. So I had to understand that before people deal with me, they’re going to deal what they think I’m going through. Then time will pass and then they’ll realize that this is just my life, the stuff I was given to deal with.”

Michael J. Fox on what it’s like to live with a chronic illness and his return to TV.

I can relate to this, because I’ve seen similar reactions on days where I’m wearing the Big Black Wristbrace of Doom. I saw the sadness and pity in my co-workers eyes so often — and was so ashamed of seeing that reflected back at me — that I took a moment in a staff meeting to ask them not to comment on it anymore. This is just part of my life now. Some days it will be, some days it won’t, but regardless, I’d prefer it if people didn’t make a big deal about it.

Reduce Fear

“I long for the day for people to live their lives to live in a way that pleases God, not because they have to and because they can. And so they will live in all kinds of ways, in ways that you may not agree with. He alone will judge. He didn’t call us to be prosecutors, but witnesses.”
– Alan Chambers, former head of Exodus International

There are times when I am skeptical of complete reversals of opinion. They often seem too neatly packaged and their appearance is usually too well-timed to a particular political or social event. Then there are times when I’m awestruck by our capacity for radical change. The knowledge that Exodus International, the (in)famous ex-gay ministry is shutting down and rebranding itself has placed me squarely in the latter camp.

Sometimes it feels as though the world’s heart has grown larger, softer and more open. Exodus International is shutting down, The Mormons are “creating conversations” between gay members and their general membership, and not one, but two same-gender families made Ebony Magazine’s list of the Coolest Black Families in America.

Does it seem like things have changed quickly, or has the passing time and increasing distance between my youth and my present age dulled the edges of my memory? Are things really happening this fast? Or are they not happening fast enough? Either? Or? Both?

I look around sometimes and while things look familiar on the surface, on closer inspection its clear that I stepped through a looking glass without even realizing it.

A Part Of It, Not Apart From It

At the risk of sounding like a stoner or a total burnout, allow me to say this:

It’s all connected, man.

This weekend I went on a road trip to the Methow Valley in Washington state. If you follow me on Twitter, you no doubt saw some of the photos, so I’ll spare you a lengthy recap. But what I want to talk about are those moments when I — finally — felt a part of something bigger, not apart from the rest of humanity.

  • There was the moment in the bar when I played “Freebird” on the jukebox and the people in the bar made appreciative noises;
  • When a complete stranger bought a round of drinks for a small group of somewhat rowdy Canadian librarians who were in town for a girls’ weekend;
  • When I helped that same stranger find the ingredients for a drink called an Irish Letter Bomb (and it was as gross as it sounds, but to each his own);
  • During a chilly walk across a pedestrian bridge in the black of night under a canopy of stars so bright it made my heart swell and eyes water, and also caused me to break into spontaneous verse from this song;
  • Walking alone on a packed-snow trail surrounded by scrubby pines, and feeling how pregnant with life the world was as the wind played restlessly yet lovingly with the pine boughs;
  • Hiking to the top of a small ridge all by myself after I was convinced my body could go no further, and receiving the gift that is a mountain ridge that is huddled lovingly against a big blue sky

I was awed and humbled. I felt insignificant in the vast scheme of things, but deeply important to the friends I took the trip with. I had moments of perfect solitude where I never once felt alone, or misunderstood, and I never once felt like I didn’t have a right to these experiences, this life, or these friends.

I don’t want to couch this in treacly new-age sentiment, but I felt present in a way that I haven’t in many, many years, and every time I felt it, I gave silent thanks to the world I live in and the life I’ve chosen.

Finding yourself supported and welcomed by community is a blessing far beyond anything I could ever find in a house of worship.

Thank you, universe, for reminding me of my place within you.

"I do, of course, understand why people get upset …

“I do, of course, understand why people get upset when something they like comes under criticism. When you love something, you want other people to share that reaction, and if they don’t, or if they affirmatively dislike a joke, show, or movie you’re getting something out of, it’s upsetting. People have a tendency to conflate criticism of something they like with criticism of not just their taste, but their whole person, as a byproduct of the increasing importance of cultural preferences to our identities. And when the criticism is based in an argument that a piece of art is racist, or sexist, or homophobic, people often jump very aggressively to assuming that said criticism is a judgement of their entire person.” — Alyssa Rosenberg, “From Seth MacFarlane At The Oscars To Rape Joke Debates, Why Our Conversations About Comedy Are So Awful

This doesn’t happen only with comedy. I think we all attach an enormous amount of significance to any cultural product we enjoy. It explains the reactions I got when I tried to talk to the Morris dancers over the weekend, and I think it explains a recent interaction that went wildly sideways in ways I didn’t expect. The things we like, advocate for, and share say a lot about the image we present to the world. If someone finds that thing we love doesn’t speak to them in the same way, it’s only natural to take it personally, I think. At the same time, critique serves a purpose in the lives of artists, public intellectuals, politicians, or anyone else who has a pulpit. It forces us to sharpen our arguments and rassle (yes, rassle) with our preconceived notions.

Maybe the postmodernists were on to something with their ideas about tearing structures down so that they can be rebuilt from stronger (more inclusive) materials, but tearing things down simply for the sake of being destructive is a waste of time and energy.

On the Tyranny of Tradition

NOTE: More than a month has passed since this incident took place, but suddenly, thanks to an article in the Vancouver Sun, interest in this issue has begun anew. I’ve said all I have to say on the subject. I’m also closing comments on this post. If you have something to say, you’re welcome to say it over on the Vancouver Sun’s pages, but I’m making an editorial decision to shutter further comments on this post to prevent them from getting ugly.

(NOTE: After talking to my friend Jason, I wanted to offer this note: I acknowledge that the Morris Men were not pretending to be black people, nor were they trying to mimic black people in their performance. I also acknowledge that as the person who lacked context, the onus was on me to try to gain that context. I hope I did that. My feelings do not trump cultural identity. At the same time, I think geography and location matter.)

I’ve seen a lot of things in Vancouver, but I never expected to see a group performing in blackface right outside my apartment.

I caught the Vancouver Morris Men as they performed on the plaza in the Olympic Village. A group of 8-10 middle aged white men in blackface played instruments, danced in circles and lines, sang songs, and performed routines with sticks. And oh yeah, they were in blackface.

I stood there, shaking with rage, completely gutted by the fact that no one else in this oh-so Liberal and progressive environment seemed to have a problem with what we were watching. It was just me, posting photos to Twitter, standing there with my arms crossed, mean-mugging the whole time while the audience clapped and cheered. I decided to stick around after the performance was over. I wanted to understand why this particular tradition was so important to them. I walked over to one of the performers as he was talking to a couple of women, and interrupted him mid-explanation.

He was explaining to one woman that the reason they performed this way was because of the class differences in society at the time the tradition started. Performance was frowned upon in upper class society, so the dancers darkened their faces with cork to disguise themselves.

“Do you understand that blackface is hurtful to some people?” I asked, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice.

“You’re not the first person who has complained or raised a concern about this,” he said, “but we’ve decided as a group that it’s important to honor the tradition, and that we’d keep performing in blackface.”

I could write more about the exchange, including the belligerent woman who shouted in my face that this was “older than Shakespeare” and that I was wrong to criticize the dancers because “(she) liked it”, and I could talk about the other dancer who, growing testy, tried to talk over me to try to silence me. I’d like to mention that a woman who said she descended from Holocaust survivors understood what I was saying, and opined that when something touches a person like this, it becomes an emotional response. But right now, I want to try to focus on a lesson.

When your tradition, when your art causes people pain, you have a responsibility as an artist, but what is that responsibility, and what is the correct response? Is it time to think of another way to honour your tradition without causing emotional damage? Should you be given a pass because your art is old and time-tested, or because it was the ways of your forefathers? What is your responsibility as a thinking, living, feeling member of the society you inhabit? You aren’t excused simply because you’re “just trying to have fun” or “just trying to be respectful to (your) history”.

Perhaps you’ve never had to face your biases in person. If that’s the case, then you’ve lived a sheltered and privileged experience. When a person comes to you with pain in their voice and tears in their eyes, it isn’t the time to cover your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears, and sing “LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU!”.

You may never call a black person a nigger, and the very idea of explicit racism may make your blood boil, but when you’re putting forth an image that leads a person who lacks the proper context to an unfavourable conclusion, it’s your responsibility to listen. If you are unwilling to listen, or if you decide that your art and your tradition mean more to you than another person’s stress and discomfort, then you are willfully flaunting your privilege. If you willfully flaunt your privilege, you deserve to be — and will be — called out on it. Do not feign outrage or surprise. Do not plead ignorance.

I know that change is hard. I know that you probably feel picked on and misunderstood. I am sorry for that, but at the same time — welcome to my world, buttercup. Do not try to tell me how hard it is to wear blackface (yes, one of the performers actually said this to me). But when you try to hide racist questionable behaviour or racist questionable representations under a cloak of tradition, or when you try to pass it off as little more than a quaint custom, it makes you look callous. It makes you look like a coward. If you descend from such a brave and proud people — and I don’t doubt that you do — do them the honour of finding a way to celebrate their meaning in the same spirit, but without such a literal interpretation that will, without a doubt, be easily misunderstood.

But most of all, listen. Listen to me when I tell you that I never expected to have my spirit violated as I was innocently walking to the market. Listen to me when I tell you that as a highly educated person that I freely understand the intellectual and historical context of your art, but that those responses go out the window when emotion comes into play. Do not invalidate my pain. Do not try to shout me down. Do not tell me I am wrong. Simply listen.

Here is how you can listen: stop talking. Here is how you can acknowledge what you’ve heard: repeat back what the person has said. Here is how you can start dialogue: when the person has finished speaking, thank them for expressing their opinion and sincerely apologize for causing harm. Here is how you can affect change: take the time to develop an understanding of the hurt you have caused, and reflect upon it. To do otherwise leads me to believe that you just don’t give a shit about other people, and I for one don’t want to believe that you could have such an insensitive disregard for someone you have never met.

Because you’re not really like that, are you?

If you put in the work, if you listen, reflect, and seek to affect change, you may find that your audience will appreciate your traditions more. You’ll gain a perspective that will make you better artists, and will make you better people. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all striving for?

(I’d like to send a huge thank you to Elaine Miller, who forwarded my tweet to a number of her activist friends. Thank you for helping to share my experience. I’d also like to thank everyone else who offered support, expressed outrage, and suggested solutions. I am feeling much better, much stronger because of you.)

A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. …

A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame.

This Ray Bradbury quote is doing my head in. Ta-Nehisi Coates referenced it in a piece where he talks about “the sonic democracy” of hip-hop and how it draws influences from both high and low culture.

It seems opportune on a day where the #whatlibrariansread hashtag went around on Twitter and when – thanks to Lynne – I snagged a ticket to one of the summer’s hottest concerts. Trash and treasure. High and low. Rowdy and refined. Those liminal spaces feel most like home to me.

Like Frank Costello said, my environment is a product of me.

All In All It's All We Are

Kurt Cobain would have been 46 today if he hadn’t taken his own life.

Imagine the pain and person has to be in if they think the only relief can be found at the end of a barrel of a gun.

As I remember Kurt, I’ll also remember Mindy McCready. I am not sure I believe in an afterlife, so I won’t say that I hope they found the peace that eluded them in life, but I do hope that their families are able to find forgiveness.

On Organization and the Paralysis of Choice

I’ve been in my new job for about two weeks now. I’m trying to look at the way I process tasks, organize projects, and capture information (articles, blog posts, staff information, etc.) that I need to recall later, but I’m finding that the sheer number of choices out there is making my life more complicated, not less.

A few weeks ago I read Alexandra Samuel‘s Work Smarter with Evernote. She made a simple yet compelling argument for moving away from paper and organizing your life with Evernote. I used it for two solid weeks, and I developed a new respect for the application as a result, but I found that when it comes to to-do lists, Evernote falls short for me. If I don’t add reminders to my to-do list, I quickly lose sight of them, which results in a bloated, unwieldy reminder of just how much I’ve failed at staying on task.

I found out about Wunderlist after Dorothea Salo sang its praises. Wunderlist looked promising because it’s free (hello!), it has fully-featured iOS and Android apps, and it works very well on the web. Wunderlist has reminders, I can assign tasks to others, and it just looks like the perfect solution…for someone who isn’t me. My main gripe is that you can’t hide completed tasks in Wunderlist which results in quite a bit of clutter when you have to remember as much as I do.

I’ve given the Omni Group a lot of money over the years, and I’d used OmniFocus in the past when I had to organize my work into projects. I absolutely love the power of OmniFocus, but the ramp to get into it is quite steep, and sometimes it feels like you need a degree in OmniFocus to use the software. I use it on my Macbook, on my iPhone and iPad. This has served me well enough in the past, but there’s no Android version (I love my Nexus 7) or web-based version. It’s ironic that I want more platform choice from OmniFocus when I’m feeling paralyzed by choosing between the perfect productivity system.

Here’s what I really need from a product:

  1. Multi-platform. Must run on Mac/Windows, iOS and Android, or on the web
  2. Inexpensive
  3. Must have servers in Canada or outside of the United States in order to comply with BC Privacy legislation*
  4. Should be able to assign tasks to people without requiring them to sign up for an account first
  5. Great looking
  6. Flexible enough to incorporate it into a variety of workflow situations
  7. Goes beyond basic to-do lists, but should be simple enough to capture single-item, simple lists

It feels like I’m asking for the impossible. Am I? How do you organize projects, people, and data?

* I’ve made the choice to use these services for my personal data, so this requirement doesn’t matter for personal use, but when it comes to organizing work projects, I’m afraid it’s non-negotiable.