277. affable

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haircut-1007891_640The spring semester started up again last month and thus I haven’t had much time to write recently.

First, to my readers outside the United States, things are truly surreal here.

For the 74+ million citizens who did not (and will not) support the toupéd fucktrumpet our sketchy and antiquated electoral process installed as President, every day brings new, increasingly frightening portents that the government is run by truly incompetent, dangerous people.

So, in addition to school and work, the news has me constantly stressed out and anxious.

Yay.


Just over a year ago I started writing about identifying as demisexual. My views have evolved significantly since then, partly thanks to the work I did with my therapist last year to start pulling back the curtain on the machine of lies and bullshit my parents raised me with as fundamentalist evangelical Christians.

I did get some pushback from one reader who commented he didn’t understand my decision to stop identifying as gay. “I could acknowledge strong similarities with you on almost all of the points you made and I’m gay as a goose,” he wrote.

Another friend wrote to ask why I couldn’t identify as demisexual and gay, while another asked if “demisexual” wasn’t an adjective that could be applied to gay.

Still another wrote to express confusion at how I could discard a label he had fought for years to claim for himself.

In part, I want to address some of these comments and share some of the work I’ve been doing.


AVEN’s definition of demisexuality is “a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone.”

While I knew demisexuality was on the “sexual” end of the asexual spectrum, I didn’t fully grasp how true it was for me.

As I’ve thought back over my teen years and sexual awakening, I realized that my sexual feelings have rarely been directed outward. They’re there, and I did (and still do) experience sexual arousal, but I don’t recall it being directed at anyone. I had crushes on guys, but the desire to do anything sexual was almost always absent.

My sexual fantasies were abstract—in hindsight, more about intimacy than sex.

I’ve been trying to determine if this was some kind of coping mechanism. That is to say, because I’d been taught those feelings were forbidden, my mind found a way to block them since they were inaccessible.

This might be the case. I’ve compartmentalized so many other feelings, so why not this too?

However, I’ve never been terribly interested in sex. I was always more focused on writing, practicing piano, or reading. Even today, I’d rather be cataloging than hooking up.

When I was having sex, whether with a boyfriend or some random from an app, I felt nothing. It was disorienting and alienating. The sensations were okay, but there was no connection.

As harsh as it sounds, frankly, I don’t think I was much attracted to any of the guys I dated.

I may as well have been masturbating.


This process of deconstructing my sexual upbringing has also resolved some issues with being externally defined.

When I was growing up, my sexuality was defined for me by my community and what the Bible supposedly said about it, which meant that I was defined as a heterosexual male.

Obviously that did not work.

When I finally came out in 2008, it took some years before I really started having sex, and when I did, I did what I thought I was supposed to do—seek out strangers and friends to bang.

I assumed the feelings of emptiness that resulted were from lingering internalized homophobia that I needed to fuck out of my system.

I was doing what I’d been raised to do: suppress my feelings (no matter how miserable it made me) and do what I perceived was expected of me.

It still felt forced though. I didn’t really understand what guys were doing when they checked each other out, or ogled some hunky god from afar. Some of that might have been posturing or trying to impress each other, but I didn’t get it.


This has also helped explain ambivalence I feel about things like kink, or gay identity markers like hairstyle, fashion, or speech mannerisms. That’s not to say there’s any universal identity marker. Each community has its own set.

However, I figured out where the disconnect is for me: namely, that those identity markers (hair, dress, etc) are ways gay men telegraph their availability to each other, whether for flirting, dating, or just sex. From an anthropological view, the majority of humans do this, whether deliberately or not. It’s how our brains work.

Life, uh, finds a way.

On a subconscious level, I have been telegraphing my lack of interest for years. If I were interested, I might have adopted a more “gay” haircut, tried to dress more like other gay men, or adopt their mode of speech.

I prefer to march to my own beat, and have always been happiest that way.


The third thing I’ve just recently been able to articulate is that demisexuality best describes the manner in which I experience sexual attraction, while “gay” describes its direction.

One blog post from The Asexual Agenda helped put this in perspective. It’s about overlapping circles.

From https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/visualizing-demisexuality/

Source: QueenieOfAces. “Visualizing demisexuality.” The Asexual Agenda. September 05, 2013. https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/visualizing-demisexuality/

The author writes, “‘Homosexual’ defines the ‘direction’ of the sexual attraction… while ‘demisexual’ defines the manner in which that sexual attraction is experienced–only after forming an emotional connection.”

The model also works for someone who is heterosexual but is capable of homosexual attraction after emotionally bonding with someone of the same gender.

In this sense I am both gay and demisexual. Putting my cataloging hat on, my pseudo-LC subject heading would be:

Homoromantic demisexual cisgender male androphile.


While my dating life is a lot more complicated, finding myself on the asexual spectrum just feels more aligned and true.

That’s what matters.

275. vergangenheitsbewältigung

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broken-mirror
According to a Buzzfeed video, vergangenheitsbewältigung roughly translates to in English: “to deal with the past and eventually overcome it.”

Thanks to X years of coaching German lied and picking up bits and pieces of the language, I can correctly pronounce this word without much prompting.

Even the umlaut.

Unfortunately, the concept itself seems to be one I have particular difficulty with.


Let’s start with an excerpt from an episode of This American Life:

Linda Perlstein: This is the time of biggest growth for a human being, aside from infancy… what happens in your early stages of puberty is this fast overproduction of brain cells and connections, far more than you actually need. And only some of them are going to survive puberty. This growth in your frontal cortex, it peaks at 11 for girls and 12 for boys. And then what happens is the cells just fight it out for survival. And the ones that last are the ones you exercise more.

Ira Glass: In other words, during those years, your brain turns you into you, the adult you.

This got me to thinking about my own adolescence and what was happening during the formative years Perlstein is talking about.

Puberty started around age 12 for me. For most boys, it happens in community with other young males. There’s competition, and cruelty, but also camaraderie. I experienced it in a vacuum as a homeschooled youth, with two younger sisters and parents who preferred to pretend nothing was happening.

I had to educate myself about puberty and adolescence by reading medical guidebooks that we had on hand at home, and at our local public library.

This was also where I first (inadvertently) learned about homosexuality.

Puberty was frightening, and deeply uncomfortable. I had no frame of reference to compare my own bodily experience against, and nothing with which to normalize it. Rather than evolving with my body and celebrating its masculinity, it became a symbol of shame and revulsion, something to be ashamed of rather than expressed.

It didn’t help that I was also learning in church that the body was a corrupting influence and a potential tool for Satan, right around the time that I was becoming aware of my own homosexuality.

Couple that with our community’s obsession with spiritual warfare and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety and hyper awareness that would destabilize the sturdiest of people.


Just over a year ago I wrote about watching Jessica Jones, how it deals with living with life-changing trauma, and encountering one’s past to find strength in overcoming it.

The character of Kilgrave was a frightening reminder of how much voices of the past are still taking up residence in my head, whispering, distorting and shaping perceptions, essentially pulling the reins of my behavior and choices for the last few decades.

Around the same time, I also got into another Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which I found surprisingly emblematic for my own experience of having been trapped in my own proverbial bunker for fifteen years.

This second season seems to deal more with the ramifications of dealing with the trauma of having had your personal agency stolen from you in those formative middle school years, when you’re supposed to begin dealing and coping with all those complicated adult feelings and emotions.


I had a pretty good session with my therapist today in which I finally came out to her about the four personas taking up residence in my head. Writing about them over the last few weeks was good groundwork in preparing to talk about it, because I was able to hit on a few insights while describing what is going on.

One of the things my therapist said today was that people raised in extreme religious environments often fragment their personalities in the way that I described. To make sense of what we’re told every day, we mentally the bury parts of ourselves that are problematic, sinful, and “wrong” in order to be accepted, or acceptable, and to survive.

While my forward-facing social, public self has developed and grown, the four parts that I described a few posts ago—the Dark Man, the Enforcer, the Rake, and the Child—all represent parts of me that did not. In order to stay safe, they went into a sort of mental cryogenic stasis, coming out only when needed, so they didn’t mature along with the rest of me. My child self is still eight years old, the age when I took literally the Bible verse that says to “put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

The Dark Man is still the critical, judgmental, severe parent that fed my perfectionist nature when my flesh-and-blood parents failed to do so. He’s largely responsible for the sense I have of being overly rigid and inflexible.

Forbidden sexual feelings that I vehemently repressed for years, never being explored, realized, or integrated healthily into my personality remain detached and largely inaccessible to this day.

The Enforcer represents the desires and ambitions that I had to squelch and suppress every day, which then inverted into a dark, malevolent, amoral force that provided the energy to kill dreams that God/my parents didn’t approve of and bury my sexual self, but which has also allowed me to kill friendships and reject my family. This is where my black-and-white thinking largely stems from.

In short, these are survival mechanisms that took on a limited life of their own, but are holding me back from true growth and flourishing.

My therapist did have one piece of advice: to not make these personas out to be bigger or more than what they are, and to not grant them too much power or agency.

She also pointed out the fact that I’m actually aware of these parts of myself that are “stuck” is a sign of significant progress.

But all of this is a huge reason why I’m still single.

I’m not prepared to unleash the Four Horsemen of my Psyche onto some unsuspecting bastard.

273. factitious

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That first night when we sat on the trunk of my car and looked at the lights above the Arby’s? When I got up to leave, I looked at you, and I tried to think of how to say everything I was feeling. But I’ve never really been good at describing feelings. I’m only good at describing facts, and love, love isn’t a fact. You know?

Love—it’s a hunch at first and then later it’s a series of decisions, a lifetime of decisions. That’s love. And I didn’t know how to express that and so I just said: “I’m glad I decided to call you.” And now, tonight, I say I’m glad again, for this decision and all the decisions that will come every day after.

Which is to say, scientifically speaking of course, speaking from the point of view of mere facts and logic and you know, what with the science and all… I just thought that it was time for us to make a life together.
Episode 100 – Toast, from Welcome to Night Vale¹


no-face-png

A few days ago justmerveilleux commented on a previous post that it was “much too cheerful.” I’m endeavouring to bring the tone of this one back to my usual stark, grim, crepuscular realism. 😉

The last few weeks for me have been spent weathering feverish bouts of anxiety as we learn more about the Drumpf administration and what he, his cabinet, and the Rethuglican Congress have in store for the world over the next four years.

Basically, every time I scroll through New York Times or Guardian headlines, it’s a brand new something to haunt my dreams:

  • The planet is going to be trashed, sea levels will rise, and resulting droughts will bring about starvation and catastrophe.
  • We LGBTQ+ Americans are going to see all our civil rights gains taken away thanks to ultra conservative Supreme Court justice replacements.
  • With the almost certain repeal of Obamacare looming, the future of my health insurance is uncertain.

It’s been interesting to compare my reaction to this election to the one in 2008, and look at how much I’ve evolved since then. In short, where I once feared what Obama might have done as our first socialist President (which turns out not to be true—Hoover, Johnson, FDR, and even Nixon were just as Socialist, if not more so), we have a fairly clear idea what Drumpf is going to do. He has filled his cabinet with cronies, homophobes, and bigots who want to enact a theocratic, Objectivist agenda of revenge on this country, regardless of who suffers.

My nightmares don’t seem like a matter of “if.”

More like “when.”


I had a brief exchange with my youngest sister a few days after posting blog # 271. In short, we both feel similarly fragmented, made up of disparate parts, the result of decades of living in fear of our parents, their omnipotent and omniscient god, and a judgmental community of holier-than-thou Christians.

Okay, time for gross generalizations.

From what I’ve observed about most people, I gather that they function largely as a holistic whole, different modules and pieces of their psyches that work together in their functioning as a person.

For me, growing up in secret for nearly three decades feels like being a lump of coal trapped underground for thousands of years, under enormous heat and pressure, until suddenly ripped out of the Earth one day as a diamond.

I grew up managing a complex bureaucracy of desires and needs, making sure none of them drew the notice of anyone who could make my life unpleasant or difficult. I couldn’t be too ambitious, too needy, show too much self-efficacy, and certainly not any of my deviant sexual desires.

Now, nearly six years out as an atheist, I’m still living with disparate parts of myself that don’t talk to each other.

For most people (again, making gross assumptions here), when they want something, they think it and their cogs and wheels work out the specifics. Their child selves talk to their adult selves, sharing memories between them. And when a man is attracted to someone, he feels desire and the rest works itself out.

With me, none of those parts communicate. It is sometimes a daily inner civil war just to decide what I want for dinner—or to decide that I deserve to even want to eat.

I rather feel like No-Face from Hayao Miyazaki Spirited Away, an otherwise neutral being that absorbed the desires and intentions of those around him, a friendly mask disguising a dark and dangerous mess underneath.


When I fully, truly, came out in 2009, after breaking up with my first boyfriend and deciding I needed to “experience” everything I’d been missing, sexually speaking, I was still largely in the mindset of needing to be who I perceived everyone wanted me to be.

It’s how I survived evangelicalism as a gay teenager—by blending in, adapting, never being myself.

The hesitancy and emptiness I felt in hooking up—engaging in casual sex with guys who I knew weren’t going to be boyfriends or long-term partners—I chalked up to a puritanical upbringing; remnants of a lifetime of being told homosexual desires were evil, perverted, and sick.

I just needed to push through that to become the liberated gay man I knew was there, somewhere.

It never occurred to me that my reticence was the result of the reality that I experience sexual and romantic attraction through emotional intimacy rather than my pelvis.

The frustration in being a demisexual is feeling no control over who I’m attracted to. It happens suddenly, mysteriously, and very gradually.

I see couples at Target, holding hands and buying produce or a birthday card, and long for that kind of domestic intimacy. Granted, I have no real frame of reference. It’s academic, but still an abstract direction I’m aiming for in hopes I stumble onto something concrete.

I don’t want spectacular romance. I don’t need suffocating togetherness.

I’m not entirely sure what I want from a boyfriend/partner. Yes, I want companionship, the usual trimmings of a long-term relationship.

It’s more than that, though.

I want the significance of a look shared between two people experiencing something special and beautiful—a sunset, a moment in a Mozart opera, seeing something that reminds them of a moment five years ago before they knew any of it meant anything.

I’m suspicious of the fire, the passion, the Sturm und Drang of the early stages of a relationship. I want the quiet certainty of sitting on the hood of a car, staring up at the lights above the Arby’s, and am glad that I called someone.

These are the cares of a time traveler who lives in both the past and the future, knowing that everything that happens between is uncertain and surprising, but inevitable, unchanging.

Unchanged.

“The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”²

I’m not hopeful that I’ll ever get any of this, but a fellow can dream.


Works Cited

¹ Fink, J., & Cranor, J. (2016, December 15). Episode 100 – Toast [Audio blog post]. Retrieved from http://nightvale.libsyn.com/100-toast

² Nicholson, W. (1989). Shadowlands. New York: Samuel French.

254. probity

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Jessica_Jones_NetflixA few weeks ago I decided to check out the Netflix show everyone in my social media circles had been talking about.

Jessica Jones.

The Wikipedia article on the show offers a good summary: “Following a tragic end to her brief superhero career, Jessica Jones tries to rebuild her life as a private investigator, dealing with cases involving people with remarkable abilities in New York City.”

It’s an adaptation of a Marvel comic character of the same name. Based on the reviews of social media posts, blogs, and reviews, I thought it worth checking out, especially with its themes of dealing with trauma, recovering personal agency, and rebuilding one’s identity.

Without giving away any spoilers, the show certainly lived up to the hype. The main villain, Kilgrave, played by David Tennant, was alarmingly creepy and sympathetic at the same time. In a Guardian interview, Tennant described Kilgrave as having the power to compel people “to do whatever he says.”

Of his character, he added, “How can you tell if people are doing things because they want to or because you’re asking them to? How can you have any sense of what the world is or how the world should be if your world is so particularly unique?”

The show affected me in ways that were unexpected, particularly in the relationship between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave. At one point early on, Jessica rescues a young college girl who’s been under Kilgrave’s thrall. Once they’re back at Jessica’s office, she makes the girl say, “None of it is my fault.”

As the series progresses, Kilgrave compels people to do darker and increasingly destructive things, things that suddenly seem to them perfectly reasonable and rational once he asks.

The show asks some fundamentally unsettling questions about human behavior: namely, is Kilgrave planting desires in people’s minds, or is he just accessing something that was already there?


Jessica Jones triggered some pretty powerful memories and feelings, having been a willing prisoner of sorts myself for twenty-eight years. That’s something one hears a lot in circles of survivors of Christian fundamentalism. You can’t know that you’ve been programmed virtually from birth to accept:

  • everything in the Bible as inerrant and immutable;
  • anything a pastor or divinely-appointed leader (essentially, every adult male studied in the Bible) says as absolute truth;
  • that any natural human desire not sanctioned by your church as part of God’s design (and let’s face it, your church always gets it right and everyone else is headed down the road to perdition) is sinful and an abomination;
  • that there’s only one way to heaven, and that’s the path your pastor and your church sets.

It’s not that fundamentalist Christians are mindless robots who can’t think for themselves. However, for those raised in sheltered communities where there were no other voices, no alternative perspectives to challenge the Bible-centric conservative Christian views, and especially in communities where insiders are taught to fear and mistrust outsiders, the question of agency becomes much fuzzier and difficult to unravel.

So when I see videos of children at Creationist seminars proclaiming that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, that humans rode dinosaurs, and that evolution is a lie from Satan; or homophobic Christians at rallys with signs declaring that gay people are an abomination, I don’t see much difference between them and the people Kilgrave turns into murderous maniacs with just the merest hint of suggestion.

As the Jesuit saying goes, “Give me a child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man.”


I found myself identifying most with Kilgrave’s victims, individuals who wound up on the other side of what essentially comes down to rape, and are now unsure of where the line between before and after is. They didn’t want to do whatever it was Kilgrave compelled them to do, and yet the desire to follow his command was stronger. To violate someone’s agency and compel them to act against themselves and their own values is a deeply perverse act.

Right now, the word counter at the bottom of the page reads 666. The rational part of my brain says that it’s just a number. No special significance. Yet there’s another part of my brain that still sees that as a sign of the Antichrist, a being that is very real and will appear soon. I know that the latter thought is irrational, yet it sometimes still springs to mind first.

For me, and many others, the words “None of it is my fault” are nearly impossible to say, because they don’t seem true. All of those times that my mind and body were telling me I was attracted to men, but the part that was under the thrall of evangelical Christian teachings told me that was sinful and disordered… that was still me that believed it.

True: it was the fault of having been raised in that environment my entire life, of being exposed daily to that ideology, and of the people who were supposed to be my guardians, but it was still me that performed the action.

… it’s a deeply unsettling constellation of emotions.

For victims of Kilgrave, they can’t return to the person they were before. But for survivors of fundamentalist Christianity, there is no “before” to go back to. Only a past of lies.


The question I raised most recently with my therapist is whether I can ever truly escape the influences of the brain I grew up with—if I’m building a new identity with old tools.

Of course, my perspective is different now. My beliefs are radically different. Yet I still view relationships through a lens of fear. I still see myself as unworthy, worthless, and broken.

It’s how to move forward that is the challenge. When you have nothing really to look back to as a frame of reference, it’s disorienting to try to find a workable path on your own. Others can help, but it’s usually just you, the ghosts, and the demons.

Happy New Year.

249. obstreperous

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BaR_twitterSorry about the gap in posting. Grad school started up again in September, and on top of working full-time, doing music for Sunday Assembly, and serving as secretary for the campus archivists group, I’m also taking two fairly demanding courses, both in cataloging.

So time is extremely limited.

Of course, because I’m apparently a masochist, they’re both in the same subject area—cataloging—except that one is a beginning-level organization of knowledge course, and the other in advanced cataloging. Because I’m ridiculous.

But I’ve also discovered that really enjoy cataloging, which I wasn’t expecting. Homework (which usually consists of actual cataloging activities, such as identifying Library of Congress subject headings, looking up RDA rules for classification, or consulting LC authority files) is thoroughly enjoyable.

I could seriously spend hours doing this. It’s so relaxing.

So there’s that.


Had a mini grieving moment on Saturday, following by a minor meltdown in the evening.

I came across some recordings that I did in 2007 of music written for a play and performed with friends of mine. It’s music that I’m actually quite proud of, some of my best work, and overall that was a nice time in my life. It was the year before I came out, so it was actually a pretty turbulent time emotionally and psychologically, but working and creating made for a refreshing oasis in the midst of what was otherwise dark chaos.

It hit me while putting the tracks together that I really don’t write music anymore, and currently have no inclination to do so. Maybe I will again, someday, but for now that seems to be done. Wrote about that a few months ago when the Source Song Festival came around again, but it finally sunk in, like the awful significance of the death of someone close to you hitting home all of a sudden, that that part of my identity, the composer and classical musician, is gone.

It’s a striking absence considering how many years and how much effort I put into becoming a musician and composer. Hours spent practicing and writing, working on projects with friends, struggling to get my work out there for it to be (hopefully) discovered, and then finally accepting the inevitable conclusion that this wasn’t

This came up in the most recent meeting with my therapist, on Monday. The past few months I’ve been gradually stripping away the final vestiges, exorcising the remaining ghosts, of that now-defunct period of my life. It was an identity designed to please my father, the people in my life who I looked up to and respected, who all said that music was my divine calling (or however they phrased it—not quite so dramatic as “divine calling,” for sure).

I started writing music around age fourteen or fifteen, began a bachelor’s in music composition at seventeen, tried for years to make a career as a composer, failed, and finally wrote my last “serious” composition last year for a wedding.

Music formed the core of my identity for over fifteen years, and now it’s gone.

So it just hit me how much much time and effort passed investing in that identity, and how much of both was wasted when I could’ve been putting that into pursuing authenticity instead.

And, of course, that thinking shifted over into my personal life and into looking at the wasteland my romantic prospects are at the moment, how everyone else seems to be settling down or moving forward to getting what they want while I’m looking more every day like a tiny rowboat that’s drifting out, alone, into open water.


I’ve also been more aware recently of a sense of discomfort around intimacy, of both the physical and emotional kind. There are times when I can fake it in social settings and am able to pretend for some reason or another.

Fundamentally, I believe that this discomfort is rooted in a fear of disappointment, of hurt, or both, and not wanting to get involved with a guy when it’s unclear where his intentions are. Because frankly, I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with bullshit of that kind.

And there’s the lack of trust that I have in my own judgment around the kind of guys I typically fall for. The last couple of guys I’ve been interested in or merely attracted to (and we’re talking about four or five over the last two and a half years) have either been emotionally unavailable, already taken, or hetero.

The conflict is in the reality that I seem to be surrounded by gay guys who have no qualms about having a fuck buddy, or just fucking someone who they’re into, seemingly without hangups or interest in where it goes. They just go after what they want.

It’s not guilt or anything that holds me back.

It’s fear of getting hurt.

So I can’t do fuck buddies.

Five years ago I was able to, in the months after breaking up with Aaron and then the debacle with Seth. And maybe that’s part of it—that I’ve done the sex-for-sex-sake thing and have no desire to revisit the emptiness that it became for me. Maybe it works fine for other people. For me, it was a lonely experience, especially when being with other guy’s boyfriends.

Yes, I was the “other guy” for a time.

Plus, there are new anxieties about getting older as a gay man, about the slowing-down of my body as I get into my thirties, how I’m no longer the supple young thing that guys were into. I don’t have time (or money) to spend at the gym, and I’m worried that not taking care of myself exercise-wise will eventually come back to bite me later, both in the sense of my health and in attracting romantic partners when I’m finally able and ready to pursue that.

Just a lot of anxieties overall.

I need to step back from this for now and pursue things that bring me joy and happiness.

244. entelechy

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SSF_Program

Still haven’t heard from my dad in response to the reply I sent last week. It could be that he’s just processing, but it’s possible that he won’t respond at all. Again, my intent wasn’t necessarily to cut off all contact with him and the family, but that’s how he might read it.

It’s tough because this is a relationship that I feel I should want to hold on to, and yet the facts indicate that it’s a relationship that can’t go anywhere, and that it’s best to let go of.

Speaking of things I’m letting go of, a year ago this past weekend I participated in the MN Song workshop as part of the Source Song Festival in Minneapolis. It’s a festival with the mission to celebrate, promote, and develop American art song:

… by empowering and inspiring a new generation of musicians—composers, performers and audience members alike—through the creation of new works, the initiating of conversation, and the fostering of relationships within Minnesota’s vibrant community.

I’d entered one of my songs, a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet IX, “If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,”  in the festival and was selected as one of the composers whose works would be workshopped and performed over the weekend.

In retrospect, this was a last-ditch effort to hold on to my identity as a musician and art song composer.

However, it quickly became clear that I was simply out of place among the other composers and musicians there—even the youngest one there. This is the curse of having enough talent to recognize when you don’t have the same gift and seeming facile ability of the others around you. It was an uncomfortable weekend overall, and was basically the final nail in the coffin of my career as a composer.

Towards the end of high school, my dad finally convinced me to major in music composition. It was obvious that I didn’t have the talent for piano performance, and for a while I was planning to major in English (which would’ve been about as useful as a music performance degree), but I assumed that my dad knew what he was talking about as a professional-level musician.

And that’s what I did.

In hindsight, that was one of many pieces of what other people were telling my about myself that I attempted to make fit, never questioning whether those things were true or accurate. For a while it seemed that I was a talented composer. My music was complex and challenging, and that set me apart in the music department at Northwestern College. However, as I came to realize after graduating, that was a very small tidal pool in a very large pond.

And on this side of atheism, that musical identity belongs to someone else, to a person who existed only as a mirror for others’ expectations—people I looked to as authority figures to tell me who I was.

There’s a quote of Julia Sweeney’s from her show Letting Go of God that I’m particularly fond of: “If I look over my life, every single step of maturing for me has had the exact same common denominator: and that’s accepting what was true over what I wished were true.”


As I’ve been delving more into learning about philosophy and the different schools of thought, I’ve come across the views of English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.

This video triggered a number of things from my upbringing that probably won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog. While my childhood wasn’t the living nightmare of physical or sexual abuse that occasionally makes press, as I’ve come to realize over the last few years it was still incredibly toxic on account of my parents’ theology and the theology of our churches.

Like most children raised in fundamentalist religions, I grew up experiencing conditional love and acceptance. My parents preached the importance of showing unconditional love, yet their behavior taught something of the opposite. Compliance and adherence to Biblical rules (as they interpreted them) was heavily stressed. In order for our parents to be happy with us (or at least to avoid punishment), we had to exhibit good Christian behavior.

If we didn’t, it was a sign that we didn’t belong to God and were in danger of the fires of hell.

Of course, my parents had no idea what they were doing. They admitted to making mistakes along the way, but they ultimately believed that this was the right thing, that it was the godly was to bring up spiritually healthy children.

They didn’t know how psychologically fragile and impressionable children are; that teaching a child that they’re inherently sinful could translate to the belief that they’re inherently bad; that these lessons were shaping how their child would relate to other human beings later in life, and to their sense of self-worth or security.

Neither could they have expected that this way of bringing me up would lead to the developing of a sense of false self, to the reflexive repressing of my self, to shutting down, to going out of my way to please everyone out of a fear of disapproval and rejection.

So while I may have had two parents, a roof over my head, and my physical needs met, I lacked real security and the freedom to grow up at a normal pace.

It’s ultimately why I ended up majoring in music composition, why I tried so hard for so long to be a composer, why I applied to grad school for music composition, why I spent countless hours practicing piano as a teenager, why I entered that piece in the Source Song Festival.

 

This is why I’m focusing on being with people who I do feel accepted by/secure with, why I’m pursuing things that make me truly happy and that feel authentic, and why I’m stopping myself doing things for the approval of others.

It’s daunting, but my inner child deserves better than what he got.

243. risibility

Standard

Dungeons_and_Dragons_gameAt 32.5 years old, I’m getting around to correcting a deficiency in my nerd cred.

Up until very recently, I had never played Dungeons & Dragons or any tabletop role playing games.

Part of this was that until my mid-twenties, I believed games like this were a real gateway to the occult and to demonic powers.

A Hellmouth, if you will.

Oh, yes—that went for shows and movies like Buffy the Vampire SlayerCharmedBewitched, Ghostbusters, The Craft… even Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Simply watching a positive portrayal of witchcraft or the occult was an insidious threat to our Christian faith. We were like heavenly soldiers adrift behind enemy lines, like Frodo and Sam in Mordor. Unless we spent time every day reading the Bible and praying, and watched and read only Bible-based media, the constant inundation of worldly temptations would lead us astray into the grip of the Devil!

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” – Colossians 3:2-3 (ESV)

I’m not even kidding. That’s what we believed.

I had a good friend in high school, Jennie Purino, who was really into RPGs. (And vampires.) At age 15, having been brought up to believe that all that stuff was literally evil, this was a real brain teaser. From how she described and talked about it, it didn’t seem particularly dangerous or threatening. And as far as I knew, she didn’t worship Satan. (I think her family was nominally Catholic.) It actually sounded like fun… which, to my then Christianity-saturated brain, sounded exactly how Satan would lure people in.

So over the past few years I’ve been getting caught up on things that were previously verboten for me. Everything from music to games, to television shows, graphic novels, movies, card games… and now role playing games. My housemates are long-time D&D players, so they’ve been trying for a while to get me into it. And while I no longer think it’s evil, I was a little resistant. My understanding of games like D&D was that they attracted nerdy math freaks who could keep track of all the rules involved in game play. I pictured tons of calculations, and memorizing arcane amounts of information about races, monsters, spells, weapons, combat, and so on.

To be honest, I have a huge chip on my shoulder about anything math or science-related. I struggled to learn even basic math, like algebra and geometry, and science was equally daunting. Chemistry was fun though. But that meant that I chose to focus on the humanities, especially on literature and music, and wrote science and math off as being for people who were logical, and “smart,” and who probably fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. (Irony.)

Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God:

I had this prejudice that doing well at science was somehow an admission that you didn’t have the complexity of mind or subtlety of character to take on the humanities. Science was for people who couldn’t handle ambiguity and needed black and white answers, people who couldn’t get in touch with their feelings and had nothing left to think about.

Then a few weeks ago, I was invited to play Pathfinder, a game system similar to Dungeons and Dragons (and, as I recently learned, is backwards-compatible with D&D 3.5), but set in a different universe and setting. My friend Ben is running this game, which is the first chapter in a much longer campaign called Rise of the Runelords. Earlier this year I played a card-based version of this game, so the setting and the world itself was fairly familiar to me, but this was the first time I’d be building a character and rolling for stats.

Look at me, using phrases like “rolling for stats.”

The past few weeks have been spent researching and building this character—in this case, a half-elf bard named Casevar. I wrote out a fairly lengthy detailed biography for him, and this was the basis for a lot of the skills, abilities, and classes I chose to assign. It was actually a lot like the experiences I’ve had building a character in theater—you can do almost anything, within the confines of the play and the world the playwright has set, but you have to be able to justify those choices.

For example, one of the skills was Linguistics, which allowed me to choose an additional language that Casevar knows. For this instance, I chose Gnomish. When Ben asked me how on earth Casevar would know that language, I could point back to his biography where one of his close childhood friends was a Gnome named Mikkkaer. (Told you. Detailed.) It works in the context of his history.


What I’m learning is that the rules and the nuances of RPGs are almost secondary to what seems to be its more primary aim—collaborative storytelling. Mechanics are necessary, but are more the tools for storytelling than an end. It allows for people to experience a different reality through a collective imaginative effort, and maybe for a few hours to be someone else. It draws on narrative and mythic elements that have shaped human cultures and civilizations for thousands of years, and that still continue to speak to us today.

There are also an increasing number of studies suggesting that RPGs help in the development of critical thinking, creativity, and compassion, and can be useful in the treatment of conditions like bi-polar, depression, and even autism-spectrum disorder.

So I’m looking at this as an opportunity to not only broaden my horizons but to also step outside my comfort zone and try on different personalities and personas as I build and shape my own post-Christian identity. Perhaps in this way I can overcome some of the demons that have been keeping me locked up in my own head, and from moving ahead with my life.

Not to mention that it’s also fun.