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The Pain of Others

Mourning Young Man #1

Please be aware that this post contains discussion of bullying, violence and suicide.

It’s easy to recognize our own pain. We live it. We feel it. We own it. We know it.

I think it’s perhaps easiest to recognize someone else’s pain when we see a reflection of our own pain. I’m sure that’s why reports of gay teens committing suicide resonate so powerfully for so many gay and lesbian adults, myself included. When I read about a gay teenager taking his own life, my heart races. I can feel my pulse in my ears. My hands and feet start to tingle. It’s the fight-or-flight response, two decades later, because my body still remembers the threat to my survival. Just reading about another kid in that situation, my body prepares. It is telling me to survive, and it takes every step it can to help me survive a physical threat.

Writing the previous paragraph was more challenging than I would have anticipated. It’s the middle of a heat wave, but my hands are ice cold. They are an unnatural color, like a corpse on a crime drama. My nail beds, usually pink, are purple. I took breaks. I took in deep breaths through my nose and let them out slowly from my mouth. I went up and down the stairs for no reason. I got an iced tea . I finished it. I pestered my husband, interrupting the episode of Deadliest Catch he is watching. I stuck my fingers down the back of his neck, declaring, “Free air conditioning!” I got the look. You know, that one. I replaced the iced tea with a real drink.

But it was my choice. I knew what writing about this was going to do. This, by the way, is one reason trigger warnings exist. These physical responses aren’t fun, so it’s a kindness to warn others when we can. I’m the kind of person who blissfully ignores those warnings and is then surprised to find myself saying, “Oh, I really shouldn’t have read that!” But, again, that’s my choice.

I’ve experienced this feeling, to varying degrees, a few times in the last week or so. Once, when I read about the suicide of Carlos Vigil, a 17-year-old boy in New Mexico. Again while writing this post. In between those two, where I anticipated the feeling, I was surprised to find myself reacting the same way to an episode of The Fosters on ABC Family. The youngest member of the family, described by ABC as “a sensitive boy,” was excited to be making a new friend at school. It was a sweet scene, but for me the stakes were too high. I know too well what happens when sensitive pre-teen boys get excited about making new friends. We make fools of ourselves, and end up even lonelier than we started. I can only hope that it’s gotten better in the twenty-three years since I was a pre-teen boy.

What I really want to talk about, though, is what happens when the connection to someone else’s pain isn’t quite so visceral. What happens when we decide that their pain isn’t quite the same as our pain?

At the most extreme end, we get atrocities like the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. The jurors were somehow unable to connect Trayvon Martin’s murder to their own experiences, or their own fears about what might happen to their children. Instead, they connected with their fears of black teenage boys. Some of the jurors were parents, and I’m sure that at some point they’ve lost sleep worrying about their own children. And yet, in this case, they found themselves identifying more with a man who stalked a child, provoked a confrontation with that child, and then shot that child dead in the street while the child screamed and begged for his life.

If only Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal were unique.

There’s a mountain of evidence that our criminal justice system fails black people. Perhaps the clearest data is the conviction disparity between blacks and whites. It’s difficult to discuss productively, though, for a few main reasons. The first is simple racial animus — maybe black people are just more likely to commit crimes? Next, you have to compete with the basic belief that our courts are fair. This seems quite obviously incorrect — in the last thirty days, our courts have decided to dismantle the Voting Rights Act and give George Zimmerman free reign to walk the streets of Florida murdering black children. But for white people, the courts are pretty fair. It’s hard to get people to see that their own experience does not necessarily extrapolate. (Just look at how many people roll their eyes and say, “Pfft, global warming,” when they’re shoveling a foot of snow from the driveway.) Finally, we have a tendency to venerate juries, making their conclusions somehow sacrosanct, as if jurors are magically able to leave behind their prejudices when they enter the deliberation room.

“But I don’t do that!” is a common reaction from white people when there’s talk about racism. Maybe that’s true. I suspect that if you took the Harvard Implicit Associations Test for race, you would be surprised by the result. You’d be correct, though, that overt expressions of racial animus are less socially acceptable today than they used to be. (Well, sometimes. The Washington Post still lets Richard Cohen write columns.)

Most people, though, do believe in basic fairness, so they are able to identify the most overt displays of discrimination and describe them as unfair. The problem is that employers rarely say, “Jim, I’m firing you because you are black.” Juries don’t come back from deliberation and say, “We find the defendant guilty, Your Honor, because he is black.” We’re all supposed to take great pride in that, declare that we live in a post-racial society, and ignore displays of racism that are any more covert because people might disagree.

When I was adopting, there were hundreds of questions about potential children. What ages would we accept? What gender? What race? How many? There was a multiple page list of disabilities, and we were asked to rank our comfort level with each of them — Can Definitely Accept, Can Definitely Not Accept, Need Specific Information. We zipped through the beginning: infant through age six, any gender, any race, either one child or a sibling pair. We spent a lot more time evaluating the range and severity of disabilities, as strange as that seemed, since you can never really know. Health and disability can change in the blink of an eye. Regardless, we filled out the form as best we could.

And then we had dinner with my parents.

We were casually discussing the paperwork, and talking about how strange it was to fill it out. My mother’s response was coded, barely, but her view was clear: she hoped we would have a white child.

My heart started to race. My fingers went numb. I could hear my pulse in my ears.

I’ve heard racist stories and jokes, infrequently, over the years at family parties. Never from my parents. From my grandfather and my uncles. My dad would sit in silence, and my mother’s face made her disapproval clear. But they never said anything. No one ever said, “Stop telling that disgusting story. We’re leaving.”

Driving home from dinner at my parents’ house, I replayed every discussion of race I’d ever had with my mother. It was easy, because there were so few. I recalled the times she had dismissed her own mother’s racism as “a product of another age,” saying that my grandmother “didn’t really mean it.” I always had a mouth on me, and I remember saying, “Really? Because Nana usually means what she says.”

I started looking at my own childhood, and the shame I felt when I didn’t conform to my mother’s ideas about what a little boy should be. She may have hand-knit a poncho for my Barbie doll, but a few years later I would feel the sting of rejection when I said or did things that embarrassed her.

Would my family love my children less if they were not white? Was I prepared to find out? I sought advice from our social worker. Her recommendation was clear, and we changed the form from “any race” to “white.” What did it say that we felt prepared for a whole range of developmental challenges, but we weren’t sure if we were appropriately prepared to raise a black child? Autism was fine, but a black child wasn’t?

Hearing Melissa Harris-Perry’s voice break while she described her relief at learning she was having a girl made me remember that decision. I had put it in the back of my mind in the panic and rush of actually being matched with children, and the dawn to exhaustion marathon that has followed. I don’t know if the decision changed anything. We were matched with our sons so quickly after we were approved, primarily because we said we would take two children and because the social workers were ecstatic that I was going to be home with the kids.

Is this a story about my racism? I don’t know. But it’s something I haven’t really talked about, which is a pretty good sign that it’s a problem. I talk about everything. When I read Kelly Wickham’s piece calling out those who have remained silent, I decided to write about it.

I don’t know if this story is helpful, but I know that there’s a problem, and that too many people are silent about it.

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October Goals Update

I didn’t forget! I said I’d post another update mid-October, and here it is. (It’s not the last week of October yet, so it’s still totally the middle!) My younger son was home sick from school for three days this week, and it’s amazing how much I depend on those two hours every morning. They go by so fast, but you sure notice when you don’t have them. This month has been a mixed bag in terms of progress:

1. Blogging. I mentioned this on twitter last week, and got some great feedback from some other bloggers that was a huge help, but I hit a huge roadblock in writing about my conversation with a high school bully. I was writing about it every day, hating everything I found to say, and then trashing it and starting over. So I’ve set it aside for a little while, but hopefully will soon figure out a good way to write about it. The conversation was really good, and I feel like I learned a lot.

2. Writing. It’s moving along, if somewhat more slowly than I’d like. I’m going to take a little break from it for the month of November, and will be working on a new project for National Novel Writing Month. It seems like a good time for me to try a challenge in terms of increasing my output and getting myself to a place where I can write something on a plan instead of just when the feeling comes along.

3. Exercise. This has gone very well. I’ve been working on Couch-to-5K for six weeks, and am seeing big gains in terms of my ability to to push myself. This week, I did an 18-minute run that wasn’t broken up with any walking. Looking at my route on Google Maps, it looks like I ran about a mile and a half. I’ve been super fanatic about sticking to my schedule, and have been running every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning without exception. If you had asked me six weeks ago if there was any way I’d be able to do the workouts past the first couple of weeks, I’d have told you there was no chance in hell.

4. Weight Loss. This is also going very well. I’m a little more than halfway to my goal! Last weekend, I had to buy new jeans because my old ones were literally falling off. This is going to sound awful, but now if I look in the mirror, I feel like I look like me again. It feels a little shallow to say that, and I’m surprised that I feel that way. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I gained a pound last week, and was furious at myself about it.

5. Skin. About a month ago, I had my first appointment with the new dermatologist. Fingers crossed, but he seems kind of like he might be a normal human in possession of some empathy. I wasn’t sure that was possible! Regardless, one month in, I’m definitely starting to see results. My skin is markedly improved, and that plus the weight loss … just feels pretty great!

Expect to see a November goals update at the very end of November, so I can rate my NaNoWriMo success.

Only Skin Deep

Franck Juchaux, BIOalternatives, France
I’ve mentioned a few times that I dread the dermatologist, and that I think my negative attitude toward the profession deserves a blog post of its own. Don’t worry, there will be no dermatological horror pictures in this post. That photo up above is skin cells, and it’s as close as we’re getting.

First, you need to understand that I am descended from two families with bad skin. My mother had really problematic acne when she was young, and my dad’s family is full of recurring rashes and psoriasis and allergic reactions. So no one should have expected that they might get together and have children with beautiful skin. It just wasn’t in the cards.

When Austin and I were first talking about adoption, we both joked (is it still a joke if you’re actually completely serious?) that since we wouldn’t be genetically related to our children, there was actually a chance we could end up with some good-looking kids who would grow up to be traditionally attractive adults! And it does seem to have worked out that way. Our kids are pretty good-looking, and they might end up with that social advantage.

My first experience with bad skin came in the sixth grade. Every couple of weeks, our class would receive a visit from a science enrichment teacher. She’d go around the elementary schools in the district doing little extra science projects with classes. And one week, we made molds of our teeth. But instead of using whatever it is that dentists use to take impressions, we used Play-Doh. Actually, it wasn’t even Play-Doh, it was a generic version. So we had these little plastic trays, and we put Play-Doh in them, and then bit down on the Play-Doh.

It turns out that I am allergic to whatever red dye is used in generic Play-Doh. So once the molds were on the shelf to dry, and we’d moved on to math, I started to itch. A lot. And pretty soon I was in the nurse’s office, covered in hives. Sixth graders, I would like to take this opportunity to point out, are really sympathetic when that effeminate boy with no friends is covered head to toe in a rash.

Recurrences of hives were pretty rare, since 12-year-olds don’t spend a lot of time with red Play-Doh in their mouths. But it wouldn’t be long before my skin would find new ways to torture me.

In junior high, I started to get acne, just like everyone else. Mine was maybe a little worse, but we were all teenagers and we all had acne. What we didn’t all have was the weird thing that started happening with my hands.

In the late fall of seventh grade, one day my hands started to itch. For a couple of days, they were just itchy. Then, the itch turned into a rash. The rash turned … pretty gross, and pretty soon my hands were covered in a rash of little fluid-filled bumps. They itched, and they hurt. Holding a pen or turning the pages of a book was really uncomfortable.

Of course, my parents brought me to the doctor. They prescribed creams, and put me on steroids. My parents wanted to know what was making my hands do this. Was I allergic to something? The answer from my pediatrician and the dermatologist was clear — this was caused by stress and anxiety.

I believed the doctors. And I believed that it was, then, entirely my own fault. My parents wanted to know what, at thirteen, could be causing me stress or anxiety. Here I was, a kid who didn’t have any friends at school, who was tormented on the school, who was getting spit on during the bus ride home, and who often arrived home from school only to burst into the tears I had been holding back so my peers wouldn’t see me cry. I couldn’t tell my mom, “Well, everyone hates me because I’m gay,” so I didn’t say anything. I knew that I was alone in this.

Soon, the gross rash would start to go away. The little fluid lumps dried out and popped, and then all of the skin on my hands would dry up, get hard, and fall off. My hands were cracked and bleeding, the skin was tender and raw. I had thought that the rash was bad, but the rash going away was even worse. And I was pretty convinced it was all because I was gay. If I could just stop being gay, people would like me, and I wouldn’t be stressed, and this wouldn’t have happened.

It took about a month, and then my hands were fine again. The skin was maybe a little bit delicate, but I was kind of a delicate kid. It didn’t hurt anymore, at least.

Until the spring, when it happened again. Exactly as before. First a rash, then the bubbles, then the cracked and bleeding hands. About a month, and then it was like it had never happened.

It began to repeat like clockwork. Once in the fall, once in the spring. Every year. I called it “my hand thing,” because none of the dermatologists I saw seemed to have any name for what was happening to my hands. But over the course of the next few years, and a few different dermatologists, the answer was always the same. Whatever was wrong with my hands, it was caused by stress and anxiety.

And how could I say that they were wrong? I was literally a puddle of stress and anxiety. I did begin saying to dermatologists that it seemed strange to me that I was stressed and anxious all the time, but my hands only reacted to stress and anxiety at the end of fall and the beginning of spring. More than one dermatologist basically told me I was imagining a connection between the seasons changing and my hands exploding. The only connection, they assured me, was stress and anxiety.

In some ways, it was reassuring, because as I went through high school, things started to get a little bit better. I started to have a small circle of friends. I came out of the closet, and my deep secret shame didn’t feel as secret or shameful anymore. But my hands were the same.

So for twenty years I put up with this awful hand thing. Every fall. Every spring. I could pinpoint exactly when it was going to happen. The first really cold week in the fall. Bam. The first unseasonably warm week in the spring. Bam. I stopped bothering with dermatologists, because the steroids and the creams didn’t seem to do anything.

Then I happened to have my annual physical, at the age of 33, at the same time as my hands were doing their thing. My physician asked about it, and I told him the basic outline, like I’ve told countless dermatologists and physicians over the years.

“Well that’s ridiculous,” he said. “These fluid-filled bubbles on your hands are a histamine reaction. Do me a favor. In the fall, when it usually happens, try taking claritin for a few weeks. See if that has any impact.”

And it turns out that if I take a claritin every morning when it first gets cold in the fall, my hands are fine. Twenty years. Twice a year, every year. Painful, bleeding hands for a month. Fixed by a claritin.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little distrustful of dermatologists. But I did call this morning and make an appointment with one. Hopefully they’re better at treating acne in 34-year-olds than they are at treating acne and painful skin conditions in teenagers.

Setting Goals

I’ve mentioned on twitter that I’ve been feeling a little conflicted about the professional successes of some of my college classmates. We’re at an age now where people’s careers are really starting to take off — one of my classmates has landed a great role on a critically acclaimed television show, another is on the writing team for a new series on HBO, two of my classmates have had novels published in the last couple of years … you get the idea.

Let me be clear. I am thrilled for them. (Especially one of the novelists, who I’m really glad to be able to count among my friends.) I am proud of them. I know that they’ve worked really hard for these successes, and had to struggle to achieve them.

But their successes, through absolutely no one’s fault but my own, kind of make me feel like a failure. Sure, I’m a stay-at-home dad. By choice. But I stopped working well in advance of the kids moving in. A decade out of school, my career was in exactly the same place it was three months after I graduated. I had moved across the country, and wasn’t at the same company, but at 30, I was doing the exact same thing, in the exact same position (for the exact same pay!) I had done at 20. So leaving behind my “career” to be a stay-at-home dad didn’t really feel like I was giving anything up.

I don’t want this to sound like a “woe is me” kind of post. If there’s someone to blame for a stagnated, dead-end career, it is me. (And maybe, if I’m being completely honest, a certain amount of anxiety.) But mostly me. Certainly no one else. I didn’t push. I shied away from advancement opportunities that were outside my comfort zone. For a really miserable year in New Jersey, I pretty much only left the house to go to work. (And here’s some free advice — if you don’t like living somewhere, you can make it a whole lot worse by refusing to leave your apartment.)

This week, something happened that made me feel pretty good about myself. (And as a bonus, it had nothing to do with being a parent.) A pretty big website was interested in running my blog post about Josh Weed and my uncle. It didn’t work out, which shouldn’t be a big surprise, because in that post I basically called Josh Weed a murderer and outed my uncle. (These would be liabilities!) But the editor seems interested in some of my ideas for future posts, so hopefully I can make that work out. And really, just the fact that he thought people might be interested in reading something I had to say was pretty huge for me.

It definitely got me thinking, though. I need some goals that are about me, not my kids, and I need to start making them happen. I’ve been 34 for a month, which gives me 11 months on a “Things to Accomplish Before 35” list. That seems like a good amount of time, and 35 is starting to feel like something that’s looming on the horizon. (Which is ridiculous, I realize, but maybe sometime before I become eligible for AARP, I will maybe feel like an adult.)

So here goes:

  1. Update this blog regularly. Like, at least weekly. Once a week, I should be able to find something interesting to say. Tweets (and tweet-length blog posts) don’t count.
  2. Finish a first draft of my novel. Outlines aren’t enough. It’s time to put the fingers to the keyboard and really make this happen. Eleven months is plenty of time to turn an outline into a draft.
  3. Lose at least 30 pounds. It needs to happen. My weight has gone up every year for the last decade, and I’ve been avoiding buying clothes because I hate the way I look in everything.
  4. See a dermatologist. One who isn’t an asshole. (Does such a thing exist? This probably deserves its own blog post.) I’ve had acne for more than twenty years, and have pretty much given up on ever having decent skin. I’m tired of having to wear a t-shirt under every shirt I wear so that I don’t get blood on my shirts (that might be more information than anyone has ever wanted to know), and I’m tired of wanting to hide my face.
  5. Do something about my hair. There’s not much hair left, but I’ve been avoiding shaving my head or something like that because I use what little hair I have to hide the acne on my head! I have gotten dangerously close to a combover, and I really can’t let that happen. Really.
  6. Exercise regularly. This one shouldn’t be that hard, either. I don’t have any lofty goals, just to exercise regularly in a way that will increase my overall health and well-being.

Ok, six items. I’ll try to expand on some of these more in-depth going forward, and I will definitely make sure to post updates on my progress. Wish me luck, because I think it’s going to be a busy year.