The lesson will be private. One-on-one. And the instructor, Mady, is, by all accounts, an incredibly delightful, non-intimidating person. I’ve performed on stages in front of 5000+ person crowds. I’ve spoken to hundreds of thousands of people around the US. I’ve done stand-up comedy on a stage in a country where the material I was performing could have landed me in jail, or worse.

So why am I so nervous about this?

It’s hard to ask for help. I’ve been taught not to. I’ve been told as long as I’ve been able to be told things that the last thing I should ask for is help. Part of this I can blame on my gender, and the expectations I’ve been led to accept because of it, and part of it is a purely American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality I’ve internalized. Part of it is also likely just plain me-ness. Regardless of where it’s coming from, it’s here. And it’s loud.

Because I have to admit I’m bad at something. I wouldn’t need help if I was good enough, right? I’m good at a bunch of other things, so it would be way easier to just focus on those and not admit that I’m a disaster at this, right? And I know this from experience, because a few weeks ago in my new show I tried to sing a song I wrote for it, and it was, well, a hilarious disaster (not the intention, but hey — I rolled with it. Maybe I’ll post the footage someday, but maybe not, because…).

And that makes me feel vulnerable. And that’s terrifying. The idea of exposing myself, even just to one person (not like that — hell, that’d be easier than this), is more terrifying than getting up on stage in front of thousands doing something I know I can do. I have armor for that. Here, I not only don’t have armor, I have open wounds, and I’m going to be sitting in a room with a near-stranger pointing and poking at them.

This is entirely about singing, but it’s also entirely about anything. Anything that scares us so much we’d rather not acknowledge its existence. Anything we feel but refuse to see, to name. All of the obstacles we create that stand between us and a freer, less-encumbered us.

Brene Brown, from afar, has helped support me in taking this leap, and all the other leaps I take. Amanda Palmer, in a more direct, intimate way, has done the same. And even my soon-to-be-first-ever-singing-instructor has done a lot to make this easier:

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I’m still terrified, but I stopped letting that stop me years ago.

I would have replied, but I didn’t know my voice would be so hard to find. You don’t get starstruck, I kept telling myself, but maybe I’d never seen a real star. She felt like a star. A sparkling, ancient light, as beautiful as it is mysterious, sincere but distant.

I knew that I was going to hand her my book and explain why I needed to see her, what she symbolized to me, the support she’d offered without even knowing it. The new best friend who pops into your life right when you need them.

Sincerity is contagious.

I knew I was going to ask her to sign the passage in her book that struck me the hardest. Cut me deep and allowed me to bleed. I wanted to bleed. I was going to tell her that she let me bleed.

Sometimes it helps to hurt.

But I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to be able to say words. Or connect dots. She talked about dots, I thought to myself. She knows about the dots. Creativity, art, doing art — it’s all about connected dots. Why am I thinking this? She knows this. I read it in her book. Focus.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I… I don’t often know how to handle it. I’ve considered stopping — just… stopping — more in the past year than I did in the previous five combined. Thank… you. Thank you. For this. For you. I–”

“Don’t stop fighting,” she said. I felt the words.

She leaned her head on my shoulder, kissed me on the cheek. I felt like a child. That we were both children. I felt like I didn’t know how to feel.

I felt naïve and confident and terrified and coddled and right. I felt right. I felt like a child.

We were sitting on the playground together. I was the new kid; it was her turf. But I was used to being the new kid. I always landed myself in places I didn’t belong. As a kid, I moved around a lot, but more than that I made spaces up. I created places that I saw fit. As an adult, a lot of my life revolves around creating and occupying spaces that didn’t before exist, at least not for long. It’s lonely work.

I didn’t feel alone in that moment.

“I won’t stop,” I replied. “Please… just… please keep being you.”

I ran away.

I didn’t know how to say goodbye. I couldn’t make words. I hadn’t been that close to a star before. I panicked, a beautiful trainwreck, I got lost on the way out of the bookstore and found myself here, in a bar down the street writing this, because I needed to put these words down. To cherish this moment. To make sure it was real.

It was real.

Earlier tonight, my friend texted me “I’m over this whole constantly chasing the homework train business.”

She was talking about grad school, and sharing a sentiment I shared back when I was earning my master’s. But, a bit to my surprise, I replied, “I miss grad school. Not to be dismissive of the woes — at all — but I just really miss that feeling. It’s different. I liked it.”

I’ve been moving so fast in the years since, I don’t spend much time reflecting on those two [intense] years. But there’s a lot to it that I hadn’t named. Our conversation continued from there, and I feel compelled to share what was bobbing around in my brain.

Grad School: The Circus

I often refer to my current life as a circus, with my manager being the ring leader and me the juggler, dancing bear, and tightrope walker. But the circus really began in grad school, and I don’t say that with even the slightest amount of remorse.

In grad school, you’re in a circus with a safety net. You’re walking a tightrope, and you’re constantly pushed outside your comfort zone, encouraged to challenge your assumptions, predispositions, and attitudes toward concepts you may’ve held firmly to your entire life, but when you falter, there are folks there to steady your step. There are professors, advisors, supervisors, and cohortmates who are there to catch you when you fall.

In grad school, you can fall and get back up — and there is a network of people there to help you do so. You get your bruises or encouragement, dust yourself off, and get back on the rope. Or don’t. You choose.

Now I’m in a different circus — not necessarily a competing one, but a different one. A traveling circus. And it’s not that any of the folks who made up my safety net in grad school would want to see me fall, but I don’t want to impose, because I know how many tightrope walkers they have in their caretaking, relying on that net.

I miss that safety net.

Grad School: If Time Machines Were a Thing

I won’t say “I’d do it all differently” because I wouldn’t. I’d do most of it the same, or similar. I appreciate my time in grad school, and cherish the relationships and influences folks had on me during that period of my life. But there are a few things I’d approach differently:

  • Embrace the safety net, be more daring on the tightrope, and fail often. Grad school, and school in general, is a time where your primary, if not sole, purpose is to learn. There are few better ways to learn than by trying and failing. And there are few safer places to fail than in school.
  • Ask for help more; it’s an invaluable, ephemeral resource. In school, you’re in a social contract with a whole network of people (profs, advisors, supervisors, cohortmates) who are dedicated, willing, and able to help you. That’s not a thing outside of higher ed, at least not in my neck of the woods. It’s not that I didn’t ask for help when I needed it; it’s that I would ask for help when I didn’t, because I could have used it, even if I didn’t realize.
  • Remind myself constantly that I’m a student, not a professional. You’re in this brackish space, practicing what you’re learning (as GAs and RAs) while learning it. It’s important to not shirk responsibilities, but it’s also important not to overcompensate for experience you don’t have. You may be a paraprofessional, but you’re a suprastudent: you’re not just expected to learn, but to learn enough to be able to teach.

I love my traveling circus. I take risks — probably too many — but walk my tightrope with intentional, sure steps. I know that if I fall, I fall. There’s nothing there to catch me. That’s how things are now, but that’s not how they were. I wish I’d realized that then, danced along my rope instead of tip-toeing, focused less on making it to the other side and spent more time falling.

Last week I gave three back-to-back shows at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. I was their “Diversity Speaker” for orientation, a product of some of the orientation leaders seeing me speak at a conference. I’ve said this a bunch: I loved doing those shows, and I heart FIT. What I haven’t said enough is why.

I want to get into that, but to do it I need to address the difference between gender expression and gender cueing.

First, let’s do some show and tell.

Below (and above) are a few photos of me on stage over the past year. Something that most people would never realize is how intentional I am about how I dress, depending on the audience, the content of the talk, and where in the country I am. These three photos are helpful in demonstrating the full range of decisions I’ll make in this regard, so let me talk about them for a moment each.

(Sidenote: the nice thing about these photos is my hair/grooming is about identical in all three, so we can just focus on the threads)

The first photo is me during my keynote at the National Sex Ed Conference.

sam-killermann-masculine What I’m wearing: this is a fairly masculine expression for me (super important distinction). I’m wearing a dark blue blazer, lavender v-neck, solid dark-plum pants, and cap-toe brown shoes (not pictured).

Why: I dressed more conservatively/traditionally because I wasn’t sure what to expect at this event, and I didn’t want my clothing to conflict with my message (which was fairly serious, direct, and provocative). Further, I wasn’t going to be spending much time addressing my own gender, or perceptions of my gender/sexuality (something that’s a part of my show), so I didn’t want people to be pondering that while I was talking about other things.

The second photo is me performing S.E.X. (yeah I was…) in my hometown Austin, TX

sam-killermann-androgynousWhat I’m wearing: I’d consider this outfit to be a bit more androgynous. I’ve got the typical mainstays of man-fashion on — the jacket, the button down shirt, the pants — but with a twist. The jacket is glittery silver. The pants are a muted leopard print. My shoes (not pictured) are the same black step-in moccasins as in the third picture, and my socks vibrantly striped in cool colors.

Why: this was a show I put together with a friend (Karen Rayne), and people were coming to see us. Like, on purpose. This, combined with the material I was performing (all super personal & anecdotal), made me feel comfortable pushing things a little bit more out of Handsometown toward Prettyville.

The third photo is me last week doing one of my shows at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC

sam-killermann-feminineWhat I’m wearing: This is one of the most feminine outfits I’ve ever gotten onstage wearing (and by onstage I of course mean “on-mean-girls-esque-gym-floor”). Same shoes and pants as the S.E.X. outfit, but sockless and rolled a bit. And combined with a dark-plum scoop-neck shirt and a warm-color medley summer scarf.

Why: because I could. This is the Fashion Institute of Technology, folks, and I assumed (correctly) that I couldn’t go too far in any direction with how I wanted to dress. The audience members presented a wonderful array of gender expressions and styles, so I was just one of the bunch in this instance.

Why any of this matters: Gender Expression vs. Gender Cueing

For a brief understanding of gender expression and gender cueing, the way I use and distinguish between the two terms is in these ways: gender expression is the various ways you intentionally and unintentionally display gender, through your dress, actions, and demeanor (based on the traditional expectations of what those displays mean); gender cueing is the various ways you demonstrate your gender, through your dress, actions, and demeanor (with the intention of helping other people gauge or understand you as a gendered person).

Gender expression is sometimes gender cueing, but gender cueing is always gender expression. Or, in non-words, like this:

gender-expression-vs-cueing-by-sam-killermann

 

Both can be thought of as performances

For some folks, they aren’t aware of the fact that they’re constantly playing a [series of] role[s] in the play called Gender! They don’t hear the director’s calls, realize they’re reading a script, or pay attention to the stage they’re sharing with other actors.

But if you’re as aware of gender as I am, it’s hard to not be cognizant of the idea that you’re constantly performing gender. I am aware of this on some level constantly, particularly when I’m literally on a stage.

Neither can be truly avoided

If you live in a society that relies on gender as a social construct, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re constantly expressing and cueing gender. Even by choosing to try not to express gender, for example by wearing more neutral clothing or behaving in ways that you might think of as non-gendered, you’re marking your gender by unmarking it.

Now, to be sure, in our society’s Play feminine-presenting people, and women in general, are much more often “onstage” for their gender. If this is an idea that you don’t immediately grasp, read this amazing article by Deborah Tannen: Marked Women, Unmarked Men.

Why I loved FIT so much is encapsulated in that third picture

Whenever I get on stage I’m putting on a gender costume. I’m not a snowflake in this regard — we all do it. As I commented above, I’m hyper-intentional about that costume, what it might mean, and try to control, as much as possible, the ways I express gender and the cues the audience receives.

But what most folks don’t realize is that this costume I’m wearing is 99-times-out-of-100 a more masculine representation of gender than I would prefer to express, and is generally not cueing how I feel as a gendered person. That is, the costume I wear is toning it down, not dressing it up. And this is a weight I bear when I’m performing, because I’m aware of how I’m doing several performances at once (a performance in a performance — the Inception of stand-up comedy).

A lot of folks asked me if I felt the pressure to dress more fashionably at FIT after they saw that photo on Facebook or Instagram. Don’t get me wrong, I did spend [an embarrassing amount of] time thinking about what I’d wear, but that question is working from patently-wrong assumption about why.

The why that led to me dressing how I did that day was a special feeling, and one that I had, until last week, never experienced leading up to a show or talk. It was something I rarely experience at all, despite my wants for it.

In truth, I didn’t feel pressured to dress in any way for that show at FIT: I felt liberated to be myself.

A couple months ago my friends Karen Rayne and Heather Ross approached me with an idea. I don’t remember the wording, but I don’t think it was anything less tongue-in-cheek than “Wanna do a sex show in Austin?”

Um. Yes.

I’ve been wanting to find a way to bring what I do — the social justice comedy-ness of it all — to a more adult crowd (if you will) for a couple years now. When I first moved to Austin the plan was to produce my show, It’s Pronounced Metrosexualin town as a standing gig, then take it on the road to colleges. That fell through for a ton of in-the-end beneficial reasons, and I ended up rewriting the show into what it is now: something that’s perfect for colleges, but not so perfect for ATX.

Enter S.E.X.

The idea behind the show is that I get to tell a bunch of stories I rarely/never get to tell (like my orgy story, or this new one about a massage in Dahab), and Karen gets to answer questions that adults [in Texas, or, really, most places] have never been able to ask (like, “How does fisting work?“). And we’re doing it on stage.

It’s a perfect date night. Great for 20s, 30s, and 40+s couples, getting away from the kids, or just opening your mind to something new.

Every month, the show will have a different theme, and for the first one, it’s [obviously] Our First Time. It’s going to be a blast, an adventure, and a bit terrifying; awkward, clumsy, messy; I’m definitely not going to tell my parents about it — but above all it’s going to be perfectly Austin.

Below is a little video we put together that might help make it all make sense. Further below is an interview I did with a delightful person that was supposed to be about the show.

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I arrived in Dahab in the middle of the night, the Red Sea choppy with a half-moon floating above in its own sea of stars. Even at 2am, I could see the silhouette of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia set against the constellations.

I stood on the walking bridge near my hostel for more than a few minutes, watching the small waves lap the shore, listening to the gentle sounds, breathing the salty fresh air. A person walked by me on the bridge, “Perfect night,” he said with an accent I couldn’t place.

“Perfect night,” I replied.Keep Reading

I’m on a bus heading from Cairo to a town in the White Desert. From there we will hop in a 4×4 with a Bedouin man who will guide us further. I’m part of a small party consisting of a German by way of Lebanon, a Canadian by way of Jordan, and an Iranian (-American) by way of Israel.

The bus is massive but largely empty. The seats are comfortable and recline. Both were unexpected, but super appreciated. There’s one mosquito flying around that no one seems to be able to kill. We just hit a parked car while backing out of our spot, but of course we did. We’re heading out on a six-hour journey to the middle of the Sahara.

As the bus slows in the first town, reacting to traffic, a small boy hops on and starts dropping rolls of mints in everybody’s laps as he walks down the aisle. Then he returns to the front and tells each person, “Pay me,” in Arabic. That’s one way to sell a mint.

I wake up several hours in at a building that I have a hard time believing exists. It’s a small, but bustling restaurant, miles away from any civilization with nothing but stretcing sands in between. As the bus is refueling, we step inside to grab some water and stretch our legs. The place is full of people, all stopping in the middle of some journey to somewhere, eating and drinking. Outside, the desert crawls to the horizon in all directions.

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I wake up again and we’re near the end of the road. A small town where we’ll meet Abdul, our Bedouin guide, who will be driving us deeper into nowhere. A full day’s worth of travel and the adventure is just getting started.
Keep Reading

I’m writing this from the back seat of cab heading from downtown Cairo to Zamalek.  My driver just smashed a side view mirror off another cab. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this. In fact, my record so far in one cab ride is three accidents. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The traffic in Cairo is a truly amazing site. It’s either a complete jam, or wide open. I’ve yet to experience anything in between, nor to learn how to anticipate which it will be. I’m already 20 minutes late for a lunch meeting (sorry, Farida!), but I’ve been assured that by “Egyptian time” standards I’m quite alright. I initially thought the lack of promptness here was an artifact of the generally laid-back culture, now I see it as more of a psychological survival tactic.

Traffic. Is. Chaos.

Last night I was told that fatalities by car here are in the top per capita worldwide (Number one! Number one! Number one!). I haven’t fact-checked this, nor do I plan on it, but I have little doubt in my mind that it is true. Here are a few reasons why that might be:Keep Reading

I arrive in the airport in Cairo at 2am on Thursday. I’ve been traveling since 9am Tuesday. Three hours to Houston, ten or so to Amsterdam, layover for the day there (Pancakes! Walking the canals! Coffee shops!), then a four hour flight to Cairo.

Leaving the airport, I get hailed into a cab that I thought was occupied. In the front two seats are the driver, his wife, and two children. In the back seat is a third child. The kids all have paint on their faces, red and black for the boy, red and white for the two little girls.

“Do you speak English?” I ask. I try in Arabic. “Bititkallim ingileezi?”

“Yes, yes. Taxi? Get in.”

“I’m going to Dina’s Hostel. Know it?”

“Yes, yes, hotel. Get in. Welcome.”

Then we start driving. We’re flying through what little traffic there is. To the right there is a moped that has three men riding on it. I’m impressed. To the left there’s another moped with three men riding and one is holding a suitcase. Now I’m disappointed in the first moped.Keep Reading

For the past several years I’ve been social justice comeding. And I’ve been going H.A.M. I’ve made a bunch of different things. And more. And I haven’t taken a day off.

Well, the time has come.

I’m the perfect combination of completely excited, completely exhausted, thrilled, depleted, optimistic, and completely-lost-hope-in-humanity-because-of-Buzzfeed for a change of pace. I need a refresher. A break. A time to breathe. A time away from this god-forsaken laptop (kidding, I love my laptop). But I am going to abandon it for a month.Keep Reading

When I came to Austin a few years ago I had nothing, at least relative to what I “have” now. I’ve achieved much and gained a lot in a short amount of time, which are all good things. Well, mostly good. There’s one thing that’s grown from an afterthought that pops into my head before I fall asleep, to an elephant in the corner of the room, to a lead backpack inexorably attached to my back: my “career.”

I didn’t have one of those a few years ago. I knew I was supposed to. We’re all supposed to have one, like a government-issued ID or an anus. Butt I didn’t. And, in hindsight, I didn’t miss it. I spent most of my days creating, most of my nights creating, and the rest of the time living. I put so many creations out into the world that year I can’t even recall many of them now, nor did I document it particularly well. I didn’t spend any time thinking about the creations, or managing them, bolstering them, advertising them — those are all things a person with a career does; they’re some of the main side effects of catching career — I just created.

Then I came down with career.

Career is what gets in your way of trying to do work that is meaningful and enjoyable to you. It starts as an unplanned pitstop on your way to some project you’re excited to work on. Next you find yourself scheduling regular check-ups in advance. And before you know it you’re doing full tune-ups with a certified tuner-upper every time you try to get out of the garage. Career is “risk mitigation” and “goal setting” and “trajectory” and “email” — so much email.

It’s tough to create when you’ve been afflicted with career. Creation requires a lot of empty mind space, room that you can fill with new ideas, a place for them to bounce, to grow, to take shape. Creation requires a relaxed mind, a peaceful mind, a calm to set the stage for the forthcoming storm. Career is want to fill the mind and keep it agitated, ever turning, ever grinding, ever aware. Aware of the things you should be doing, the tasks that need completing, how you should be spending your time right now. Creation doesn’t well abide shoulds and needs and nows.

The past couple days, since writing about remembering what you do, I’ve been trying to turn career off, or at least down, just to see what would happen. Beyond the simple peace I allowed myself to experience (which was great), one huge thing happened. Around midnight I put my guitar down, put a kettle on, studied French for a while, then decided to have a workout. During my post-shower workout at about 2am (a time I never shower, because career is usually at high volume at 2am) I finally had a breakthrough on a human sexuality model that I’ve been working on for almost a year now. A model that I’ve sent a few dozen ideas directly to the trash, but kept forcing out new ideas because I know that I need to create this model for this book for this publication date for my career.

As Mickey Smith says in my favorite video (almost) ever, “I never set out to become anything in particular, only to live creatively and push the scope of my experience for adventure and for passion.” That’s how I feel most of the time about my career.

I love what I do. I really do. Genuinely, with all my heart, never want to give it up love. I just want to be able to do that more again, and worry about doing it less. So it’s clear I don’t like something, now I just have to figure out how I’m going to change it.

We’ve heard it a million times: “old habits die hard.” But that’s not true. Truly, “bad habits die hard.” I can attest to this, using this Thought/Day project as an example.

Up until last week, I was 81 for 81 days in a row of writing and publishing a thought each day. There were a few that were nail biters, but 81 happened. In a row. And it became a good habit. I was writing every day, thinking about things a bit more critically than before, and having to do the magic that is taking a critical think and turning it into an intelligible thing. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

Then I missed a day. I was on the road in Seattle and busy (away from my computer) from 6am ’til 4am the next day. By the time I got to the internet, I figured there was no point in rushing to throw something up, as I would be home later that day and might as well take my time to get the post up. I wrote a couple thoughts on the plane with that in mind. When I got home, I fell asleep almost immediately and didn’t wake up until the next day. Two days missed. Eff. My habit was shredded. The next couple days, I woke up knowing that I needed to post those previous thoughts as well as write a new one, but I was so slammed catching up with other things and trying to stave off Teen Flu that Thought/Day got backburnered, then forgotten. By Saturday, I was back on a plane again, and Thought/Day didn’t even cross my mind. What happened to me?! 

That’s the thing about good habits. If you’re not vigilant — if you don’t protect them — they’ll get gobbled up by bad habits right quick.

Bad habits like mindlessly surfing Netflix instead of doing something with intention, checking Facebook twelve times before reading one of the thousands of emails I need to read, etcetera. Your bad habits might be like mine, but they might not be. You know what they are, though. They’re the things you do when you truly want to be doing something else. They’re the short-term impulses you relent to at the expense of your long-term needs and wants. The things that enable you to fail comfortably at whatever you set out to accomplish.

“Ooo, I’m really attracted to that person. I should say hi.” *Opens Pinterest on phone and scrolls for 15 minutes until person leaves* “Dang. Guess I missed them. Next time.”

Good habits are the things that enable you do do what you actually want. They’re the long-term investments in your wellness, happiness, and warm fuzziness. Good habits are obvious to stop, but less obvious to adopt. Good habits lead us to say things like “I know I should do _____…” and bad habits allow us to continue “…but right now I’m _____.” Good habits don’t often have immediate, visceral gratification; it’s usually delayed, at least a few minutes, but the reward is far greater. Good habits are eating pears from the tree you planted in your back yard last season; bad habits are chopping the tree down for firewood because you feel like walking very far.

If you’re struggling with adopting and protecting some good habits in your life, here are some of the things I keep in my mind that help me. While maintaining good habits isn’t the same as quitting bad habits, and each could justify its own separate thought, I’m going to group them together here for now.

  • Give it a couple weeks. If you’re trying to add something to your life (or take something away), give it at least 15 days before you decide if it’s something you want or not. You’ve probably heard the “research” that it takes [blank] days to form a habit. While I’m skeptical on that “research” I am confident that the longer you do something, the more you’ll be prepared to assess if it’s contributing positively to your life.
  • Add habits one by one. The tough part of New Year’s resolutions is so many people try to completely reinvent their life all at once. “I’m going to eat better and exercise more and stop dogfighting and start taking painting classes.” Easy there, Tiger. It’s easier to manage one life change at a time, and you’ll likely be far more successful. Start with one. Nail it. Then adopt another. (Might I suggest the “stop dogfighting”?)
  • Create a system of accountability. If you can do this publicly, even better. Tell a friend, tell all your friends on Facebook, and give progress reports. It doesn’t have to be public, it just has to be something that works for you. This Thought/Day habit is a testament to the effectiveness of this step, because when I stopped publishing thoughts last week one of my friends texted me asking me if I was alive.
  • Establish a clear vision. What is the purpose of this habit in your life? Why are you doing it? You don’t need to have a “goal” (e.g., “lose 15 pounds by August”), but you need to know why you’re doing it. If you’re doing it solely because you “should” — because there is some ambiguously persuasive figure pointing a finger at you — it’s not going to work. This Why is your sword you will use to protect your new Good Habit against every nefarious, gobble-hungry Bad Habit that will spring up along the way. If you don’t want your Good Habit gobbled, you better have a sharp sward, and one that fits in your hands.

If you have any other tips, I’d love to hear them. This is a forever-struggle for me, so I’m always open to insight.

***

Now, I have some retcon-ing to do with this project for last week. Oddly, I wrote most of the thoughts that are missing, I just didn’t find the time to publish them here because Netflix.

That’s something one of my professors in grad school would lead off with in the first class of the semester. The class was about the effect of environments on people’s ability to learn, develop, and grow. After sixteen weeks, hours of discussion, papers, and reading an entire textbook, he was right. Years later, it’s funny how much I find myself thinking the same thing as I approach my work.

So much of what I do — and what other folks who do work like mine do — is helping people rearrange the things they’ve already learned about themselves, their gender and sexuality, identity, and society. People have experienced the phenomena, they just don’t have names for them, or understand how they interlock or overlap.

It’s the difference between a personal shopper and a personal organizer. Instead of taking you to fancy stores to buy new fancy things, we spend a couple hours in your closet making sense of what you already have. Maybe you need a new pair of shoes, or a scarf to go with your favorite sweater, and I can help you with that, but for the most part I’m here to help you organize what you already have.

One of the challenges is finding ways to prevent people from recluttering everything as soon as you step away. While we’re chatting, the Platinum Rule might seem like a great idea, and everyone is all “heck yeah Imma do that.” Then two weeks later, they’re in some fight with some person and they think “that would have never pissed me off” and keep hammering away Golden-Rule style, mucking up their closet.

You can lead a fish to water, but you can’t make him eat a horse, ya know?

The other challenge is reassuring people that what they have in their closet is good enough. Gender, sexuality, identity, life — these are complicated ideas, and complicated ideas require complicated explanations utilizing complicated concepts, don’t they? Sometimes. But sometimes they don’t. And when someone already has all the tools to understand an idea but thinks they are missing something, it’s tough to convince them otherwise. And it’s tougher still to help them over the discomfort and fear of realizing how incompletely/incorrectly/disorganizedly they were viewing things their entire life up until that point. Sometimes it’s easier to to just say, “nope, not possible, don’t get it, let’s move on.”

Sometimes you bite off too much of a bitter pill to chew it, ya heard?

But the fun part of unteaching is seeing when it clicks. When a person, or group of people, realize something big, and realize that they’ve kinda known it all along. And knowing that it’s not going away. That part of their life is organized now.

What do you do?

No matter your answer, if you’re anything like me you probably have an iceberg-esque situation on your hands, with 10% of your time spent doing what you do and 90% of your time doing maintenance to allow that 10% to happen.

I’m a “social justice comedian.” Tonight, I got to do that. I performed my show at St. Martin’s University in Olympia, Washington. It was a blast. During that hour, I remembered, for the first time in too long, what I do. Because the vast (vast!) majority of my time as a social justice comedian is spent not being a social justice comedian.

The 10%/90% split is ambitious. Last year, only roughly .006% of the time I spent working was me onstage. The other 99.994% of the time I was reading emails, writing, writing emails, meeting, reading emails, traveling, designing, coding, and writing email. Now, in my case, I don’t need to spend most of that time in those ways. In fact, most of the work I do actually gets in the way of me being able to do what I do. But even if I was just focusing completely on my show, I wouldn’t be spending the majority of my time on stage.

When I’ve gone a long time between performing my show, I get depressed, and find it harder and harder to do the 99.994%-type work I do. It’s easy to lose site of the forest for the trees, and to forget that every email I read and send, every article I write, every little promo thing I design — all of them are little steps that get me to my next time on stage. If I can find the joy on those things that I find in performing my show, my life will become the kind of dream that right now only ZzzQuil can induce.

I’m going to start trying to remember what I do while doing everything I do.

I’m flying to Seattle in a couple hours to speak at a conference for teen citizen lobbyists. Social justice advocate teen citizen lobbyists… pretty amazing, right?

As usual, I’m wide awake with no real hope of that changing. It’s been a few years now, and I haven’t outgrown this pre-trip insomnia. I really thought I would.

I’ve written before about how un-natural of a public speaker I am. When I started doing stand-up comedy, I would blackout from nervousness. While it sounds extreme, I’m not sure I would have ever kept going if I was cognizant of how terrible I was. Throughout the years, I’ve developed different pre-show practices that helped me cope with the anxiety. Until recently, I had to spend 5 – 10 minutes using the Kuji-In, or Kanji Mudra, hand meditation before hopping on stage, or there were no guarantees my head wouldn’t pop. Now I’m able to forego any pre-show rituals (though it’s not ideal) and I can actually pretend to not be super nervous and have a conversation with a human up until I take the stage. Unfortunately, I’ve developed this not so shiny pre-trip insomnia ritual.

The bigger the event, or the more meaningful it is to me, the more intense the insomnia. Before I keynoted the National Sex Ed Conference last month, I didn’t sleep for 3 nights in a row. I was up for 79 hours straight, spoke for one hour, socialized for four after, then slept hard enough that a gunshot wouldn’t’ve woken me up. And I don’t mean a gun randomly going off near me, I mean someone shooting me in the thigh.

Maybe in a year or two, or a few hundred more trips, I’ll shake this thing and be able to sleep the night before I hit the road. It’d be nice, but then when would I find time to rewatch seasons of Futurama?

I made a new friend (not bragging) who is so awesome (totally bragging) she makes me seem boring (humble bragging). I love making new friends. I love the adventure, the mystery, toeing and pushing the line, oversharing with whimsy — I love every step of the way.

A few days ago I got tricked into rage-reading an article on some ratchet link-bait site written by someone who is probably named Yolo Swaggington — I digress. Let me try again. I read an article about a married couple that still “dates” one another. It was a couple thousand words, but that’s all it said: married people should date each other. I’m onboard. Totally. Sounds great. But I don’t think that going to the movies more is going to fix your marriage, Mr. (Dr.?) Swaggington, PhD. But the idea of treating your partner and thinking about your relationship with the same excitement and privilege you felt at the beginning, now that’s something I can really get behind.

But it’s also not that novel of an idea. We all know about the “honeymoon” phase of romantic relationships. I sitcoms with fat dads and skinny, model-attractive moms taught me anything, it’s that marriage is boring. And laugh tracks are annoying. There’s always that episode where their marriage gets strained and one of them cooks up the crazy idea to appreciate the other person, generally with some variation of the line, “I’m going to start loving you again as much as I loved you the first time I told you I loved you.” The studio audience lets out a big “D’awwwww” there’s a hug, a kiss, and that’s how boring television is made.

What we don’t see, or really talk about, is the same phenomenon happening in platonic relationships. Truthfully, we don’t talk much about platonic relationships at all. You see plenty of “24 Tips For Putting the Spice Back In Your Relationship” but rarely “18 Ways To Platonically Spice Up Your Platonic Relationship” (spoiler: #3 in both lists is “Don’t wear underwear tomorrow, but shhh… our little secret.”). All relationships go through phases, and all relationships that are meaningful to you deserve attention, intention, and care.

I’m going to start trying to treat my old friends in a similar way that I treat new friends. Here are a few things I’m thinking of that I can keep in my mind to help me do so:

  • Be genuinely curious about everything in their life. I generally try to be attentive and present, but I realize that with many old friends I’m not the information vacuum that I am with new friends. This is partly because I know so many of those things about them already, but that’s a weaksauce excuse. Even with the people I know the best, it’s likely a lot more tip of the icebergy than I realize.
  • Ask and learn how they want to be treated, and how I can be a better friend. I tend to do a good job Platinum Ruling new people, and a rubbish job Platinum Ruling the people who I’ve known the longest. Enough of that.
  • Tell them things about myself directly, instead of assuming they’ll know (“they should know this by now”) or expecting them to read about it on Facebook, Twitter, Interwhatever.
  • Be excited when I get to see them. And be excited that I get to be their friend. It’s a pretty sweet deal, y’all. I feel pretty strongly that I’m getting away with great train robbery more often than not.

There are many, many more ways to try to bring the honeymoon back into my friendships (and I’m all ears to suggestions!), but I’m happy with these four being what I focus on now. When building a habit, it’s best to start small.

 

“What’s the meaning of life?” he asked earnestly, as if he actually wanted the answer.

“To live true, to be honest, to experience spiritual connection, to give, to be…” he replied, rambling on platitudes. The same niceties he found himself saying on a regular basis — a daily basis. The niceties that only ever cross his mind when he’s asked to recite them. When he wasn’t reciting what life was, he was living it. And, for him, more times than not, life was a person.

It was a person who pulled him out of himself. A person who made him need, in a way that need was embodied by want. It was a person who lured then faded, who teased then parried, who pulled then pushed. It was a person who meant more to him than he felt comfortable acknowledging, because there was no sense in it. But his life had never made sense.

***

I think a lot about life. If you’ve read much of what I’ve published on this site, this likely comes as no surprise to you. If you know me as a person, in the real-life, touchy-feely world, it’s definitely not a surprise. I don’t sleep much. I never have. But I daydream a lot. I always have.

When I was younger, I had a hard time relating to people who were my age. My mom explained this to me by pointing out that I was younger than everyone in my grade. But I suspected it was something else. While other people were sleeping, I was laying in bed, wondering, thinking, considering, debating — all with myself, of course, because I was the only one awake. I’d lay there for hours awake, my mind spinning. If we spend a third of our lives asleep, then we only spend two-thirds of our lives aging. If you only sleep an hour or two a night, well, you might end up like me.

All this time I spent in my head, for the longest time, remained in my head. When I started letting it out, it started to make more sense to me, and I learned it helped other people make sense to them. It was good. It was cathartic. It became necessary.

***

“Yeah, I know, I know. All that stuff. Those are good things. But none of those really mean anything. When you boil it down, you can say all those things, and try to be all those things, and just end up exactly where you started: clueless and floundering through life. So, maybe I asked it wrong. What’s the meaning of your life?” he asked.

“What do you want me to say? Live life to the fullest? Be more than yourself? Sex, drugs, rock and roll?”

“I want you to be sincere.”

Damnit, he thought. ‘Sincere’ he says. Not honest. Sincere. He knows me. He’s heard me. So how can I possibly tell him the truth? He’ll hate me if he knows.

Because he’s never lied. Not to anyone. But he’s also never been sincere. His world is centered around people. He has too much love, his mom always told him this. And he’s managed to create a life that is honest, where he can find Meaning that is true to himself. But the idea that a person has so much sway over him, a person who barely knows him can pull on his mind the way the moon pulls the tides out of the sea, scares him. It makes him feel weak. Vulnerable. Incredibly, irrevocably human. And that, to him, is life. It’s perfect. But it’s not the way things should be. He knows this.

***

When I started writing, I finally started to calm my mind and channel the chaos into a discernible message. I wrote a lot of fiction for years, many years ago. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words. I would never share it with anyone, write it and delete it. It was catharsis with no other purpose. It was perfect.

I started writing with other purpose. I wrote cover letters for jobs I was applying to. I wrote emails to the memberships of organizations I was responsible for. I wrote training manuals and educational pamphlets. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. And I really loved it. It was natural for me. I had all these thoughts built up in my mind from dozens of years of not sleeping — all this age I hadn’t aged — and I finally found a relief for it.

I was told by someone I respected a great deal that my writing was the “best student writing” she’d ever read. I didn’t know at the time how meaningful that would be, and I doubt she does to this day, but a few years later it would be the nudge I needed to become me.

***

“It’s hard to be sincere,” he replied. “Because I’m worried you won’t understand.”

How could he believe that the meaning of life was a person? But how could I not, he thought, not even entertaining the idea. His life had changed a lot in the years he’d been alive, and he’d said a lot of things “absolutely” that changed just as quickly. Maybe this would change. But he didn’t think so. There isn’t much he’s sure of — he’s a person who celebrates and relaxes into the greys between the blacks and whites — other than this. This was right. This was yes. This was clear. Absolutely.

“I’ll understand,” his friend reassured.

***

When I wrote my first “article” I had no idea what I was getting into. In fact, at the time, I wouldn’t’ve even called it an “article.” I just thought of it as “this thing I’ll write because I was told I should write it.” It got 20 views, three of which were probably my mom. When a little over a month later my site broke 100,000 readers, I was more surprised than anyone.

I became a writer. I’ve since written a few books, one of which is published, and the others will be published soon. I’ve made a wage as a writer, hammering keys and expunging overburdened thoughts to the shared consciousness of everyone who deems me worthwhile.

I can’t imagine life now without writing. But I also couldn’t’ve imagined that writing would be such an important part of my life. And for a person whose life relies on his imagination, this is disconcerting.

***

“The meaning of my life is a person,” he said through his teeth, realizing that saying it out loud wasn’t just admitting it to his friend, it was affirming it to himself. “A person who inspires in me need embodied by want. Who lures then fades. Who pulls and pushes. A person who will likely never understand the importance they have in my life, but will hold that meaning regardless.”

And then his heart quickened, and he felt sweat upon his brow. He knew that he’d gone too far, said too much, been too sincere. He’d always been honest, but he’d never been terrifying. And to say that the meaning of life is a person, well, that’s terrifying. He never wanted to terrify.

“Sounds like a person I would love to meet.”

He smiled. Because it made him feel weak. Vulnerable. Because life was perfect.

There are some wonderful things happening right now. All last year, I said it again and again, we’re on the cusp of something great. Sites trying to create positive change in the world dominate my social media feeds. I was getting my hair cut today and I said I do “social justice work” and the hairdresser actually [kinda] knew what that meant. We’re more aware than we have been in my lifetime, and we’d be okay with a revolution.

But we still have a long way to go (hard to believe, I know, what with a Black president and all). So what do we do in 2014 to capitalize on the momentum we built in 2013? There are a few things I would like to see happen. Or, rather, some things that happened a lot in 2013 that I’d like to see less of.

1. Spend Less Time Preaching to the Converted

If you’re doing social justice work you probably surround yourself with social justice people, whether it’s in person or online – that’s great. Everyone needs a network or family of support. SJ work is inherently stressful, depressing, and all-faith-in-humanity-depleting, so you could argue we need it more than most. I would argue that.

But there’s fine line between support system and echo chamber. We need the support system, but I’m hoping in 2014 we can spend less time in the echo chamber. I’m hoping we can step outside and start to engage in more conversations with the folks on the fringes and beyond. Helping these folks better understand SJ issues and, hopefully, jump aboard means change.

It’s far more difficult to talk to lay people than folks well-versed in SJ issues. You have to start at square one every time, go in without assumptions, allow them to ask questions and guide the conversation, and who got time for that? Well, hopefully, you. There are other questions for us to mull. Your blog post has 1,000 shares? Who is sharing it? Or, more importantly, who is reading it? Who is showing up for your SJ session at that conference? Who isn’t? Why not? How can we get them interested? How can we get through to them? Who let the dogs out?

I love talking SJ with SJ people. It’s like mutual verbal masturbation. But moreso, I love the idea of a socially just society, and that’s not going to happen if we spend all our time mutually verbal masturbating each other. Also, probably won’t help if that analogy catches on.

2. Spend Less Time Vilifying Ignorance

Here’s a [non-scientific and likely exaggerated to make this point] distribution of the links in my Facebook newsfeed:

  1. Blank Ways This Blanky Blank Blanked That Will Blow Your Mind (42%)
  2. This Asshole Who Doesn’t Understand Social Justice Said/Did Something Bigoty (32%)
  3. Adorable Animals (16%)
  4. Something Anti or Pro Gun Rights (7%)
  5. George Takei (3%)

Here are some things I would love to see more of:

  1. This Person Screwed Up, Which Is Understandable. Social Justice Issues are Complex.
  2. Here’s An Easy To Understand, Non-Vitriolic Explanation of This SJ Concept
  3. I Remember Back To When I Didn’t Understand this Issue, So I Can Empathize With Why You Can’t Wrap Your Mind Around It
  4. This Person Asked An Honest Question And We Gave Them A Compassionate, Patient Answer
  5. George Takei

I wrote about this the other day: ignorance isn’t a bad thing. We need to stop treating it like it is, and creating demons out of ignorance. Most of us are incredibly ignorant about most of the things in the world, and all of us started out completely ignorant to SJ issues. We all started at square one, we all learned, and now we have the opportunity to share that learnin’ with others. We can allow ourselves to hate the ignorant folks, or we can choose to love them and do what we can to make them feel safe outside of their echo chambers.

3. Spend Less Time Acquiescing to the Status Quo

The majority of Americans support the majority of the big issues American social justice people are working toward. I’m not sure exactly how things look elsewhere, but that’s a pretty shocking fact to experience here.

States opposing marriage equality are dropping like flies, but they are still in the majority, even though the populous has spoken. Why is that still being “debated”? Even in red states, the vast majority of people believe climate change is real and that the gov’t should step in. Mostmost (sorry, running out of synonyms) think capitalism is broken, or are at least displeased with wealth inequality in the US. I could go on, but I won’t. You get it.

It’s a weird time to be alive as a social justice advocate. We have the majority — we’re not some ruffian group of rabble-rousers — and we’re bowing out to the minority, a few old, outmoded, racist rocks standing against a surge of progress. But we’re still complicit in supporting huge systems of racial (and other identity-based) oppression. Aziz Ansari is comforted knowing racist people are dying off (FYI: I was doing that joke in 2006 — still have the notebook I wrote it in, but this isn’t about that… Aziz).

It’s like our cell phone reception was bad when heard that famous Maya Angelou quote, and internalized it wrong:

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”

Noooo! You must have been going through a tunnel. You missed the two most important parts. Change it! Change it. We can change it, y’all.

I was talking with this person on the bus the other day who was part of the civil rights marches in the 50s. He told me all these amazing stories, and I was completely enamored, and then I excitedly told him what I do. “I got a bone to pick with you,” he said. “You got the internet, and it seems like everyone’s talking about how things need to get better. Y’all got it so easy. We didn’t have none of that. So what the hell is wrong with your generation? We’d’ve fixed everything by now.”

People with privilege, start using your privilege to make change, instead of falling back so hard on the privilege of being able to ignore how broken things are.

#1 and #2 will help #3, but ultimately nothing will change unless we stop supporting and perpetuating the things we don’t believe in and start raising hell to see them changed.

We don’t live in the same world, you and I. But I’d love for you to try to show me yours, if I try to show you mine.

If you’re an artist, you see line and shape wherever you look. You take note of the cues that create perspective, and imagine mixing the colors you see. You wonder how the reality you’re looking at might appear in pastels, oil, and acrylic, and how you might recreate that reality later, and how you might alter it.

If you’re a comedian, you see humor between every line. Every word you hear, every thing you see, is passed through an algorithm in your head. [q:] Would that make people laugh on stage? [if no:] What do I need to change/tweak? [if yes:] Write it down.

If you’re a photographer, you see light and the absence of light in everything. You know that everything you’re looking at, and everything you can’t see, is being translated to your eyes through myriad reflections and refractions.Keep Reading

It’s gotten far easier to allow ourselves to hate than it is to choose to love.

We’re getting it from all sides. Controversy sells better than sex, and when you combine the two you have pretty much every magazine you see in the grocery store check-out line. We’re told to be terrified by our news people, that message is reaffirmed by our Facebook friends, and then we bring those messages into our social circle echo chambers and bounce them around. Don’t rinse. Repeat.

If you’re “conservative” you’re reminded on an hourly basis how the “liberals” are evil and actively working to undermine civilization. If you’re “liberal,” ditto the opposite. The actual ingredients of the message change daily, weekly, monthly, but the recipe has been the same for over a dozen years: exploit ignorance using fear, reintroduce fear byproduct to perpetuate ignorance. Create distrust, and through that distrust breed dependence on You as the Sole Trustable Message. Create a small “Us” and emphasize how big and nefarious of a “Them” we’re up against.

We need need to make a bigger Us, and a smaller Them.

We need to stop exploiting and demonizing ignorance, and start celebrating it as an opportunity for learning, expanding one’s perspective, and increasing one’s connection to others. Ignorance isn’t a bad thing. We’re all ignorant about a lot of things, and all started out entirely ignorant to whatever we think we know so much about now. Willful ignorance, something we’re encouraging with our demonizing of ignorance, is dangerous. If you beat someone back into a hole enough, they’ll stop trying to come out and start realizing how nice it is in their hole.

You Have a Choice

It’s comforting, sometimes, to think of the world as black and white, easily understood, where there is one “right” and one “wrong.” If someone does/is/believes X, then they are Right, they are on my side, we’re buds, I love them, let’s hug. If someone does/is/believes Y, they are Wrong and I hate them and wish they were dead dead dead. This is a nice, dualistic, simple way of thinking about things. Unfortunately (and fortunately!), the world allows for a mangled, cognitively complex, complicated way of thinking about things. And, among the myriad choices in life you have, one of them is whether you’ll embrace the comforting, misleadingly simple white/black of dualism, or the uncomfortably accurate grey of cognitive complexity.

You obviously have more choices than that. In fact, the choices at your disposal are limited only by your imagination and caffeine intake. But in the spirit of embracing the comfort of dualistic thinking while nudging toward cognitive complexity, here are two BIG choices we all have in how we act toward others:

We Can Keep Allowing Ourselves to Hate

The people we don’t understand; the people we think we disagree with; the people we know we disagree with; people whose belief systems are different from ours, or harmful, or wrong, or weird; people who have done bad things; people who aren’t nice to us, or don’t love us, or hate us; people who are part of Them, not one of Us.

Or We Can Start Choosing to Love

The people in the last paragraph, as well as everyone else. We can recognize our power of choice, understand that understanding can be more fruitful than willful ignorance, and start to believe that it’s possible that if we allow and encourage people to come out of their holes they might like it more out here (even though it will be scary at first, but that’s why we’re here to help).

Everyone doesn’t need to have the same beliefs, we just need to start believing in everyone.

Choose to Love

If this is sounding like something you want to get onboard with, here are the sometimes-daily steps I run through in my effort to choose to love more, and allow myself to hate less:

  1. Remind myself, first and foremost, that I do have a choice. “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters” or however that Epictetus quote goes. No matter how horrible, nefarious, or Disney-villain-evil someone seems (or is), I choose how I will make sense of that an act.
  2. Try to find the good. And I mean actually find it. Don’t trick myself into believing something about the person is good “Well, they said they hate gay people but that’s only because they love families — families are cool.” There’s likely genuinely something about this person you’ll deem good, if so, great! If not…
  3. Try to understand the bad. This requires asking the person questions and actually listening to the answers, not just listening for your cue to jump in and destroy them. Sometimes just asking those questions (a lot of “why?” questions — that they may’ve never been asked with genuine curiosity) will be enough, and the person will realize how dualistic they were viewing things. But even when it doesn’t, it’ll help you realize how dualistically you’re viewing them.
  4. Now, forget about all of that and remember what your goal is. Your goal is to choose to love this person, and the goal of that is to create mutual understanding of one another, your differing perspectives, and hopefully replace fear with respect (or at least unfear). To do that it doesn’t matter if you can’t find any Good and you can’t understand any of their Bad.
  5. Replace the Courtroom in your head with an Elementary School Art Teacher. We are so often the prosecuting attorney, defense, judge, and jury in these elaborate cases we play out in our heads when determining someone as Good or Bad. Instead, be more like your art teacher from elementary school and give the kid who painted a beautiful, almost photorealistic sunset the same grade as the kid who ate glue and created a color abomination that only makes sense to a kid who is super high on glue.
  6. Choose to love. It’s usually harder to choose to love than to allow yourself to hate, but like with other hard choices (“Should I get up after my first alarm or stay in bed for the rest of my life forever until I die?”) it’ll do you more good. And it gets easier if you work to make it a habit.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

***

Incidentally, my friend slash wonderful person I look up to a great deal, Kevin Wanzer, named his LLC “Choose to Love” after a poem he wrote (that he published as an illustrated book). Please don’t consider this article to be affiliated with or an endorsement of Kevin and his work — it’s just coincidence in phrasing and a shared philosophy we have. But please consider this is an endorsement of Kevin and his work: buy his book, bring him to your campus/org to speak, and tell everyone you know about both.