Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Red Herrings and the Elephant in the Room

[In case you're just jumping in here, this is the second of three posts on marriage.  The first can be read here.]

Oh, gay marriage.

For starters, let's acknowledge that this is a proxy war. Just like black civil rights activists weren't sitting at lunch counters because Woolworth's had the best fries in town and feminists don't protest at beauty pageants because they don't like swimsuits, the gay community and its allies are not pushing for marriage rights because they love gold jewelry and fancy cake.  This is not about marriage, but as I noted in Part I, marriage is generally synonymous with legitimacy and it is a pretty perfect symbol of social acceptance for this particular group.

Consider it this way:  most systematic discrimination is directed at a group of people who are then targeted individually for exhibiting whatever trait (skin color, boobs, etc.) identifies them as a member of that group.  I can't think of another group off the top of my head in which the individual has no such identifying traits except for their romantic relationships with other members of that group.  In other words, a celibate homosexual is a socially acceptable homosexual because there is no giveaway to the bigot that that person is someone they consider sub-human.  Since marriage legitimizes relationships in the public eye, and relationships are the characteristic that defines gay otherness, marriage legitimizes being gay.

So yes, marriage rights is an elegantly practical way to focus the energy of activists and supporters in such a way that each seemingly small victory carries way more weight than whether or not someone qualifies for health insurance through their new spouse's employer. 

While I'm more interested in the endgame of social acceptance, I don't want to minimize the real benefits bestowed by legal marriage, particularly where health is concerned.  On the one hand there's the fiscal piece:  In a weird coincidence, two gay men that I work had partners diagnosed with cancer in the past five years.  One couple has been together for about 30 years, the other for about 10.  Thanks to domestic partner benefits (which were negotiated into our contract very, very recently, just before these diagnoses), they were covered for treatment and are still covered for follow up treatment, CAT scans, etc.  Unlike married couples, however, contributions for a domestic partner are still subject to federal taxes, making it more expensive for a domestic partner than a spouse.  And if a health crisis ends tragically and the couple have shared assets or there is no will designating the partner as the heir, death can be crippling financially as well as emotionally.

[Quick digression here:  Can I say how disappointing it is when otherwise reasonable people who don't have health insurance make the ridiculous argument that goes something like, "Oh boo hoo, they have to pay more.  Well some of us don't have any insurance, so they should get over it." ? This might be my biggest all time pet peeve:  IF YOU DON'T HAVE SOMETHING THAT YOU THINK IS REALLY IMPORTANT, TRYING TO TAKE IT AWAY FROM OTHER PEOPLE IS NOT GOING TO MAKE YOU MORE LIKELY TO GET IT.  Seriously, folks, if you think health care's important, then grow a pair and start working towards universal healthcare.  The more people have insurance through their employer, the harder it is for other employers within that industry to argue that they can't swing it, so advocate positive change or just shut the fuck up, 'kay? --end digression]

Anyway, there's the fiscal piece, but also in the realm of health care, there's an access piece that is potentially devastating.  Because southern Maine is awesome and generally pretty tolerant, both of my friends were treated well by doctors and staff during their partners' hospital stays and outpatient care, even in a Catholic hospital.  The fact remains, however, that they are not legally family.  Without hiring a lawyer and drafting paperwork explicitly granting each other the rights and benefits of a spouse, gay people can be denied access to updates and information and even basic physical access to the hospital room their partner is in.  It wasn't until January of this year that the U.S. passed a law allowing gay people to comfort their loved ones at their deathbeds.

So yes, obviously there are some legal implications to marriage that are worth fighting for in addition the main goal of general cultural acceptance.  Why then, am I so ambivalent about gay marriage?

Well, because as I discussed in the last post, I don't think marriage is, nor should it be, the standard of respectability.  Furthermore, I'm not crazy about the idea of gaining acceptance and hopefully respect by seeking permission to cram oneself into an archaic and often restrictive regime with the mainstream.  Taking gay rights and marriage as separate issues, I fully support equal rights for gay people and furthermore support a total reconsideration of marriage.  I would rather see a new institution born from domestic partnership fleshed out to be inclusive of everyone without the baggage of history bogging it down. I'd rather see the law concern itself with creating legal protections and leaving the emotional and moral judgment out of it.

But hey, I suppose it took hundreds of years for marriage to change from a one-sided labor contract to the gold-standard of virtue and romance.  Maybe opening marriage to new participants will be as good for the institution as it for the newcomers.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Marriage Ain't the Only Game in Town

Marriage is in the air.  If you're into wedding extravaganzas of the traditional variety, June is a month more or less synonymous with these blessed events (which, given the weather is okay if you're getting hitched in a church and partying in the ballroom at the Ramada,...for the married-oceanside-under-the-great-blue-sky set, it's a recipe for disaster).  More recently and specifically, the legalization of gay union in the state of New York has put everyone in a matrimonial state of mind.  I've spent a lot of time thinking about marriage.

I've spent so much time thinking about it, that I think this is going to have to be a multi-post discussion.  Here's part the first: Marriage Ain't the Only Game in Town (some thoughts on our collective obsession with the ring).  Coming soon to a blog near you: Red Herrings and Elephants in the Room (Legalizing gay marriage has nothing to do with marriage: discuss). And finally: Both Sides Now (well, you'll see). Without further ado:

A couple of weeks ago, a childhood friend of mine whose blog I like very much, despite what I suspect is a very wide divide between our worldviews and experiences since the days when we built impromptu boats explored abandoned buildings, wrote a piece about "happily ever after."  In it, she laments that the popular imagination is enthralled with stories of courtship, but usually loses interest once the happy couple walks off into the sunset, and we rarely get to see what happens on that stroll.  The gist of it is that although it's a lot less sexy to think about the ups and downs of a long-term commitment, THAT journey deserves celebration as much or more so than the happy "how we met" horseshit that most people are excited about.

I'm with her, as far as that goes.  As pretty much anyone who's every interacted with other human beings, platonically or romantically, knows, infatuation is easy, but the kind of dedication, patience and, yes, love required to make a relationship work over time is exceptionally demanding and sometimes really not that fun at all. I'll suggest that it takes a lifetime of hard work just to understand, accept and appreciate our forever-changing selves.  That anyone manages to do the same for and with another person is nothing short of miraculous.  Raise the roof for any couple with the emotional largess to navigate time and space together for  great length of time.

Where I part ways with my friend, however, is where she equates this kind of commitment exclusively with marriage.  She values marriage so highly that she places cohabitation outside of marriage alongside  the escalating divorce rate as lamentable conditions undermining meaningful long-term commitments. This drives me bonkers on just about a million levels.  Here are some:

  • As I noted in the comments section of her post, there are plenty of people who exemplify the most virtuous behaviors attributed to government-legitimized couples who are either legally excluded from or voluntarily opt out of that institution. Let's leave aside for a moment the sometimes superhuman effort demanded of gay couples who've had to negotiate their long-term relationships not just on a personal level, but on a public, political level as well (activist or not, being in an open gay relationship still reads as a bold statement to much of the public at large).
  • I can cite dozens of instances where people previously married have moved on since their divorce with a new partner -- one they haven't married.  More notably, they have no intention of marrying again, but these relationships have, by and large, outlasted the ones in which they pledged "'til death do us part."
  • At the risk of reading too much into it, there's a subtle implication here  that somehow the public proclamation of commitment is what makes it valid.  In other words, it's insufficient to have a monogamous, mutually satisfying, long-term relationship. It's just playing house until you've laid your heart's intimate depths open for public acknowledgement and judgment.

We are a culture that loves the narrative of marriage as a rite of passage.  For most young Americans, whether their plans for the future involve being an astronaut or a firefighter or a secretary or a ditchdigger, the plan for their personal lives is obvious: meet someone, fall in love and get married.  The subtext is that this is what people do when they're grown ups.  The tandem assumption (although the stigma has certainly lessened over time) is that if you don't do this, or if you divorce, you are some combination of lazy, immature, unserious, and/or morally bankrupt.  I would posit, however, that the real heart of the problem is not careless, unconsidered divorce, but careless, unconsidered marriage.

If getting married is the last piece of your relationship puzzle and both parties share a vision of what that means, great.  If remaining unmarried floats your boat, great. The bottom line is that we as a society benefit from happy, thoughtful people cultivating happy, thoughtful relationships (particularly is there's a shared vision of children in those relationships) and that's not something that happens because of elaborate traditional ceremonies or legal contracts. It happens when people make reasoned decisions about their life together and build that life on a foundation of trust, respect, and love.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Joan Didion Was in My Head Twenty Years Before I Was Born

I'm a furniture magpie, my interior design a funky (read: semi-coherent) collection of items from the glory days of heavy item pick up, cast offs from neighbors and customers, the odd piece from Goodwill or Salvation Army.  But bookshelves...these are the salvager's holy grail, because no one gets rid of a good bookshelf. 

As a result, I have but one, filled to the gills and surrounded by stacks of more recent acquisitions to the library pressing against it like supplicants at a temple.  And I've read every one of those buggers, most of them more than once, so finding something to read on the porch on a sunny afternoon is an exercise in excavation and empty vows to actually pay money and find a home for them all.

Last week I dug especially deep and came up with Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of Joan Didion's essays  from the '60s.  I remember finding them interesting the first time through, which is baffling because this time I'm finding them absolutely glorious: sharply observational, subtle in their judgments, poignant, vivid and outrageously, wrenchingly human.

My favorite, by far, is the piece "On Keeping a Notebook," in which Didion meditates on the orphaned, enigmatic aphorisms that dot her notebook.  They aren't notes of the journalistic variety, just a series of seemingly random observations, a recipe, the kind of random facts that one finds fascinating, if frivolous.  She searches her memory, recalls the moments that generated each tidbit and wonders where the impulse to capture these snippets come from.

The conclusions she draws are, like so many things she writes, both elegantly intimate and universal. No, she acknowleges, these aren't factual accounts meant to capture an important moment, they're deeply subjective observations meant to capture the writer herself at that larger moment in time. "Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point." [italics hers]

She compares the keeping of a notebook like this to that very different creature the journal.  She eschews the journal as a deadly dull exercise in recording the banal details of day to day life and posits that most of it will be as lifeless for the writer as for any third party witness.  The notebook, by comparison, is driven by flights of fancy and captures in living, broad strokes the thinking that defines who the writer was as they were committing that thought to paper.

I would have been satisfied with just that, but the larger point of it all is why, outside of sentimentality and nostalgia, it's a worthwhile endeavor to reinsert yourself into a stream of consciousness you've since abandoned:

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to
be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise
us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted
them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends."

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!  It's one thing to live your life and learn from your experiences, but a lesson learned once is a fragile thing.  As anyone who's instituted any kind of resolution in their life can attest, it's easy to set your resolve but even easier to lose track of the reasoning behind it. How many people have sworn off "that type" at the end of a miserable relationship, or quit drinking forever as they drag themselves through a hungover Monday?  Those are some relatively petty examples, but the principle holds for any lessons learned in the course of personal evolution.

The arguments of this essay are compelling, but what I love almost equally is Didion's ability to speak very frankly about her personal stake in them with a frankness that is both shocking and extremely subtle.  She fesses up to insecurities and failings in a matter of fact way that feels a little like bravado.  She's self-deprecating with a disarming dash of humor.  In short, she comes across as a person who's comfortable in her own skin, a condition as magical as it rare. (Don't even get me started on "On Self-Respect")

Seriously, this essay, and most everything else she's written is a gift. Get reading.

Monday, June 20, 2011

For about ten years, my mother was a carpenter, swinging a hammer like a champ building houses in New Hampshire and Maine.  They didn't go in for anything fancy like naming the company, but some hilarious plumber or electrician christened them Honey and Dear Construction and they penciled the name on their tools for a lark.

When it was school vacation I tagged along, busying myself with such quixotic pastimes as string-and-safety pin drop line fishing, dowsing (why did I know about dowsing when I was 6??), and building eensy weensy stone walls from wayward wads of mortar and chips of slate.  If I was really lucky and no one was around, she'd let me snap the chalk line, which was inexplicably magical to me, and even let me hang a shingle or two.  I liked the construction sites and I took for granted the freedom and family time that their self-employment provided.

Memory is very a strange animal, and independent sources confirm that mine is particularly arbitrary and specific, and I have a very vivid memory of my mom's job search when she left building.  She applied haphazardly to whatever jobs seemed even marginally interesting, including a print shop.  But when the shop called her for an interview, she declined.  "One of the questions on the application was, 'What did you enjoy most about your last job?' and I realized it was being outside, being my own boss, working on my own...pretty much the opposite of the position they're hiring for," she told me.

Since I quit college, I've worked two jobs, both of them more or less by chance and both of them satisfying, unlikely, and slightly embarrassing relative to expectations (mine and others') of my potential.

I took a job as a line cook at a popular diner ("no experience preferred," ooh, that's me!) and was promoted to baker when the previous one quit in a fit of pique and I confirmed that I had, in fact baked cakes with my mom as a kid.  I had total control over the menu and worked whatever hours I deemed necessary at whatever time I felt the urge.

The next one was the one I work now at a ferry company where I made a meteoric rise from souvenir girl to ticket seller to full-time union employee, supervisor, and office mommy.  I like the work.  I schedule crews, I drive a forklift (which will never stop seeming weird), I council, coddle and occasionally chastise the peevish, petty, often rageful masses that are islanders, captains and coworkers.

Lately, though, I've developed a restlessness that I haven't felt in a long time, a deep and abiding desire to shake things up, attended as usual by its doppelganger, fear of the unknown.  In my twenties I made some big decisions on the back of this desire, always managing to whip up a perfectly reasonable rationale for moves that were bold at face value but hollow at their heart.  So this time around I've taken a quick inventory of things that I like about my job (strangers! I love talking to strangers!, variety of tasks, the combination of hands on labor and tedious administrative tasks. I love tedious administrative tasks, so zen!) and dislike (the nightmare of hierarchy, unreliable coworkers, representing backwards policies, lack of nuance) and realized that it's time to stop fiddling around betraying my ambition.

I have, over the years had about a million ideas for businesses I'd like to start, but every time I let comfort trump my modest dreams.  Today I started a fact-finding mission to see if it's feasible to actually carry one out.  On the one hand I feel inclined to tell everyone I know about it, just to put some pressure on me to follow through, but on the other, I'm feeling hopeful and slightly superstitious, so for now I'll keep the details under my hat.

For now it'll have to suffice to say that I'm ready to risk comfort for the greater reward of satisfaction.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Loving Life, or, Oversharing by Way of Introduction

I have, by my reckoning, lived a charmed life.

I come from a large, close, sparkling family of gifted people: an ivy-league educated gentleman carpenter, an international law enforcement consultant, writers of the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry stripe,socialites, an Ultimate Fighter/ceramic artist, and our matriarch who was a basketball ref, dental assistant, and single mother of five children in the days when all three were unlikely positions for woman to find herself in.  The crown jewel for me is my mother, a kind, adventurous, underestimated lady who made me feel like the MVP of the world.  All of them are flawed, naturally, but in ways that are harmless and (mostly) adorable and mostly serve to make them attractively human and accessible.

I got some pretty awesome genes from them and whether by nature or nurture managed to pick up pretty respectable skills related to all of the categories above. (Except Ultimate Fighting.  Maybe I'd be good at that too, but I'm satisfied to leave that in the realm of speculation). As a kid I was a model student, played the viola and soccer, read early and often, wrote well and often, drew, sculpted, photographed, cooked, ran, played varsity tennis, cultivated a small circle of tight friends and got along easily with everyone else, and generally had a hell of a time.

A charmed life.  I counted my parents' divorce when I was a toddler as a blessing rather than a curse (children would rather come from a broken home than an unhappy one...that's right, I just quoted Dr. Phil).  There were no untimely deaths close to me.  I never broke a bone or suffered a serious illness.  I could offer a list of grievances to demonstrate that it wasn't perfect, but in the scheme of things, I really couldn't complain.

And I didn't, but somewhere around 13 or 14 years old, even in the midst of this great wealth of family, friendship, native gifts and good fortune, it became harder and harder for me to be happy.  If worrying about outrageously unlikely possibilities was a sport, I would have been the champ. Always a little reserved and introspective, I found that my brain, which had traditionally been a tremendous wellspring of outrageous plans and rewarding diversions, had morphed into an emaciated, slightly rabid-looking squirrel digging up a treasure trove of self-doubt, self-loathing, and any other self-hypen-negative-adjective you can think of.

I went to college powered by the last scraps of my confidence.  I quit. I went home. I slept on my mother's couch in what resembled a three-month sick day.  And finally admitted that I was depressed.

That admission was really the bottom for me.  Because I had a charmed life.  I could not, in good conscience, justify the depth of my despair when I held my life up for comparison with...well, in my estimation at that time, most of the world's population.  And adding utterly unnecessary fuel to the fire, it seemed hideously pathetic and unforgivable that, recognizing my good fortune, I could not pull myself up by my bootstraps and get happy, goddammit.

There was a therapist.  I hated him because he treated me like a silly child going through a phase.  I managed that quite well on my own, thanks. To this day, I think that the advice, "When God made time he made a lot of it," easily ranks among the stupidest, hollowest, most condescending ways to tell someone that they should let go of their total sense of failure as a human being.  I quit.

I'll gloss over the intervening years between then and now, by saying that they can be represented by increasingly shorter cycles of the same:  Infinite faith in the future, crushing sense of failure, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Make no mistake, in the "infinite faith" phases, I did a lot of great stuff, made a lot of awesome friends, lived some beautiful days that I held like totems against the bad times.  I learned to keep things on a relatively even keel so the landing during the  "crushing failure" times was less bruising.  I stumbled into an interesting and unlikely job that I still have today. I got married to a very good man.  I divorced him. I was elated, productive, miserable and sluggish by turns until finally I was just exhausted. 

And that's when I finally, after rebuffing the suggestion on the many occasions it came up over the course of fifteen years, waved the white flag and started taking an anti-depressant.

It was a big deal.  I'd resisted, vehemently, for a number of reasons. 

For starters, I prefer waiting to medical intervention just as a general rule.  I eschew aspirin and cold medicine. I've taken antibiotics a grand total of once in my life.  I've landed myself in the emergency room on morphine and fluid drips more than once because I thought I'd just wait out a flu or food poisoning.

The second, and probably most potent objection, was fear.  I was desperately afraid that the misery I wanted to escape was part of some kind of unwitting Faustian bargain, the price I had to pay in exchange for my talents, my victories, the stretches of enthusiasm and unfettered, childlike glee woven through the whole ugly mess.  It's not an uncommon fear.  It's probably true for some people, but I also think it's a naturally self-fulfilling prophecy.  When you've grown accustomed to exercising your gifts despite (or in a futile effort to alleviate) depression, it's easy to conflate the two.  Like an abusive spouse, your depressed self is horribly co-dependent.

But I did it.  I take a dose so low that I almost couldn't recognize the effects until I found myself in a typical trigger-type situation running the typical dirge-like internal monologue and had the remarkable epiphany that I was thinking depressed thoughts on auto-pilot -- telling myself that I felt awful, but feeling nothing of the sort.  Whatever was going on was annoying, unpleasant, a real day-ruiner. Not the end of the world or evidence of my fundamental fucked-upness, just a bummer.  It had been so long since something had just been a bummer that I actually cheered up at the prospect.

So that's how I converted to happy.  After years of torturing myself, I finally recognized the body I'd always considered a handy tool and a great ally was betraying me.  That in the end, I was literally my own worst enemy, my biology a double agent. 

I'm excited, engaged, delighted by chance encounters and small wonders.  And occasionally grumpy, which is awesome. Now I just have to deal with the repercussions of a different kind of emotional extreme.  I'm a 32-year-old 8-year-old, reconnecting with the dozens of things I love to do, exploring the hundreds of others that call to me.  Instead of figuring out what options will let me get by, flat out survive, I'm figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. It's exhilarating and liberating and more than a little scary and I'm infinitely grateful for the challenge.