Love Isn’t Conditional

I turned 20 on the floor of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. I was waiting for a woman I thought I loved.

It was the year following my dad’s death. I lost most of my drive toward anything. I was empty inside. So, I ran away from my life. The idea was I to spend three months in Costa Rica, but I spent most of my time in Panama, and eventually got a job in a bar in Granada, Nicaragua.

Central America was good for me. It was warm and sunny, alcohol was cheap, and the food was good. I saw things that I had never seen before, like sloths and tribes of monkeys stealing backpacks. I met people from all over the world.

During those days I saw sunlight through the fog of depression. The person in the mirror started to be recognizable. One day I totally skipped my depression medication. The next day I decided to see how long I could go without. I made traveling companions, and kept moving mostly by saying yes to each of the places those new friends said they wanted to see. That took me to butterfly farms, banana plantations, black sand beaches, and to a lake at the top of Vulcan Maderas in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.

I realized I didn’t want to go back.

I was living and working in Granada during the election of Bush vs. Gore. I have never been yelled at as emphatically as I was by my fellow occupants at the hostel during the weeks where the election was contested. During my adventures every week I bought an international calling card and found a pay phone to call the only person I really missed from the US. She was in the army living thousands of miles from home. For me the long conversations were open and made me feel warm and loved in a way that I hadn’t felt before.

Still, especially after Bush was enthroned, I didn’t want to return. I wanted to stay where I was happy, where new people from all over the world came through the hostel I lived in and the bar I worked at. I was making enough money (mostly through tips) to cover my expenses, and as long as I crossed a border every 90-days I could have made it for most of a year with enough left over to buy a ticket back. That is what I wanted to do.

A stabbing sent me to the hospital.

About two-weeks before my original flight home was scheduled to leave something harrowing happened. At 4am after one of my shifts at the bar another hostel occupant franticly told me that they needed me outside. Another of the patrons (a British guy) was bleeding from a stab wound. A group of kids mugged him. I was the only person awake that spoke Spanish and English, so they wanted me to go with him in the ambulance.

Before I could get inside to grab clothes the medics arrived. So, I rode in the ambulance in my boxer shorts. I dutifully explained the situation to the medics and the doctors at the hospital. I helped the incredibly drunk British man stay up-to-date on what the doctors were doing to him. After four hours his friends finally found out and came to relieve me. I was exhausted. I called a taxi and rode home, still in my boxer shorts.

When I called my army friend she reminded me that her flight would arrive at Seattle-Tacoma about 10-hours after mine. She told me that she wanted to see me, and that I should come home. It sounded very nice; it was the first time that I felt any interest in coming back.

I quit the bar and bought a bus ticket back to Costa Rica to catch my flight from San Jose to Seattle. When I made it to San Jose I made friends with a Desert Storm vet and settled in for a last bit of fun before leaving. On December 15th 2000 I boarded a plane I spent weeks planning to miss.

It wasn’t my homecoming.

I traveled for most of a day, landing in Atlanta, being screened and re-screened, questioned about how and why I was in Central America, eventually I was allowed to continue. The plane landed in Seattle late that night. A hazy state of exhaustion and excitement floated  me to the baggage claim, then back up to a safe spot to sleep. I woke up on my birthday with enough time to get coffee before her father and I greeted her as she passed the security checkpoint.

We went back to their house, a place I frequented often during high school, I spent my birthday with her and the family. It was warm and comfortable, I felt deeply loved. When I was leaving I told her that I loved her, and that I was excited that we could see each other, instead of just talk over the phone. That was the last time that I saw her.

Now that I was 30-minutes away, and she was back home, she stopped returning my calls. After a while I gave-up. For the next 8-months I lived in a basement with four other people, I sobered-up, I worked as a janitor, busboy, and a construction worker. During visits to Reed College I decided it was time for me to return to college.

Closer to what I loved.

I packed what little I still had, clothes and computer, into my lumpy spray-painted Datsun 210 and I drove from Seattle to Portland. I was homeless, but I found my way to couches and friendly beds. At the end of my first week in Portland I got an e-mail from Army Girl.

“Hey Carlos,

I wanted to let you know that I am getting married…

 

Love,

[Redacted]”

 

My reply was short:

“Should I be happy for you?”

 

I think that is the last thing I ever said to her.

This was how I learned that some people are only loyal to what they need from you. When their needs change, so does their loyalty. What I wanted was to feel loved, I got that for a while, but it was my mistake. I mistook her longing for home and family as longing for me. When she returned to her hometown she didn’t need a friend or lover, so she didn’t need me. I hurt for a long time, but eventually I realized that love isn’t conditional.

We Fought A Silent War

Our war was about secrets, not lies. Secrets that we couldn’t share. We set to battling over territory neither of us wanted.

For my part the secret that I didn’t understand started to erode in 2006. I asked her how her counseling session went. She had anxiety from her last semester in college.
“The counselor says we are in an abusive relationship,” we both stared, and she continued,”she says it sounds like a drug addiction.”

pg-map

It was like I was looking at a proportional map of the world for the first time. The pieces were recognizable, but I wasn’t sure how to how to deal with the whole. I understood how to think about our behaviors, but I couldn’t see any consistency (consistency is what makes the difference between mean and abusive). Who was the abuser?

We had been together for a long time, when we ticked off our history we both seemed mean, at times. I just hadn’t ever dealt with the concept we were bad together, not individually.

With most of a decade behind me I realize that we were abusing ourselves. I was punishing myself because I didn’t understand what I was fighting against. She fit so perfectly into a place in my life that was broken that her most damaging moments weren’t intentional. And, my natural response fit perfectly into her greatest fears. We just did what came naturally. Our instincts were killing each other, and our fears brought us back together.

We learned to pay enough attention to balance speed and comfort, but we were headed somewhere neither of us would have been happy.

My problem was that I was in a silent war with my mother, but my battlefield never put me closer to winning my war.
In time the steady march to places I wasn’t suited to be tore me down, and my girlfriend down and we started a Cold War (seeing who could be the least attached), neither of us wanted to end what was clearly hurting us both.

Shortly after the girlfriend moved away I was talking to my mother. The last nail fell into place and I saw what my war was about. I heard this dismissive tone and language that put me right back into my last fight with the girlfriend. It was too late, but I finally had something that felt like truth. My love for that, now ex, girlfriend came clean. Most of my anger with that ex went away, but I still was the wrong person, on all fronts.

I was being honest, to my ability, and accepted two slow deaths. Always hoping that the girlfriend would one day believe that I was sorry for my part in our bad times. Inclusive of my failure to understand and let go.

My wars have become more obvious and I atone much more quickly for the Devils that rise from the graves of my past. I still fight my silent wars, and now I don’t see secrets as strength. Maybe the hardest lessons learned from that difficult relationship was to be honest about my failings, accept that there are things that I can’t fix myself, and that silence can’t fix anything.

A Tale of Two Pictures

One of my longtime passions has been visual interpretation (I did my undergrad thesis on it). I have advised many people that you can’t escape from how you look. So, when I discovered PhotoFeeler I immediately uploaded two pictures from my LinkedIn profile to see how their system works, and how cruel the notes would be.

Both pictures are taken by professional photographers using the same standards for portraiture: 3/4 stance, shoulders to camera, and clothes that I feel comfortable in. The results were very different from each other, and, frankly surprising. Each photo was rated by 20-people; the scores reflect my percentile rank compared to other images rated by the same number of people.

Image Score
What I lack in competence I make up for in likability. Yikes!

 

What a competent near sighted fellow.
What a competent near-sighted fellow.

I was surprised by the huge difference in Competent and Likable between the two pictures. I was not surprised by the user comments that I am dressed too casual. Out of 6 user comments 3 were removed by the site moderators. Seriously, 50% of the people that took the time to add a note said something so offensive that the website removed their comment. Why do you think that is? 

I suggest you tryout PhotoFeeler. To use it for free you have to score other people’s pictures, and I think that is where the value is. After scoring 10 pictures I started feeling a bit uncomfortable about my answers. I was rating people with the same clothes, background, and framing differently. Why would I do that? What I was going through was like a test, specifically an Implicit Association Test (IAT). It was putting me up against my biases.

In the end I scored 80 people so I could test my current LinkedIn profile picture in two categories, my old picture once, and my long time Facebook profile picture. The end result is that I am happy I am self-employed and already married.
uvGeClvwbDtJEyqJ_20_p_fc1b068d

Be A Dad Project Continues

Rose is back at work. This means that I am back to double duty as Dad/Marketer/Janitor/Zookeeper. Trying to accomplish 3 or 4 things at once every moment of every day. Which I love. I get to use my problem solving brain to filter down to what must.

At any given time I can be making progress on a number of things, but one has to be done. The deck gets shuffled to accommodate and the list of things I do in a day are often longer than the list of things I planned to do, but didn’t.

My biggest challenge right now comes from the motivations of my kids. One who is exerting his independence in a world where he only has three things he can reliably do “by self” as he puts it, none of which are things I want him to do unsupervised, and one who needs constant reassurance that she is still safe without mama in the house.

Wonder Weeks has been helpful. Mainly because it reminds me that Ruby is terrible because babies are terrible, not because she hates me in particular.

But, the boy is developing well and is a reliable helper when it comes to comforting the baby. Thankfully he likes his new responsibilities as a big brother. My short term goal is to get back into working out, because he also likes miming whatever I do and gets tired, or at the very least bored of bothering me, after a 30-minute workout.

Family Home Evening

One of the levels of fallout from disengaging almost entirely with my family of origin has been the liberty and challenge of building our family life the way that makes the most sense for our actual family. When Carlos and I decided to build a future together, he told me, “we never have to be normal people, Rosie.” It was, without caveat, the most important thing another human has ever said to me.

We never have to be normal people!

Our life is not “normal,” and that’s the way I like it. We have the chance to pick and choose the things that make sense for our life, which makes us incredibly lucky. And, being true to who we are, we shape those things to be fit our life, rather than any other way around.

One tradition of other families that I have chosen to adopt full-force is Family Home Evening. Naturally, there is no prayer or hymns the way we practice, and the definition of “family” that we use would surely irk most Mormon elders. Family Home Evening as practiced by our family is likely to include conversations about consent, collaborative troubleshooting of people’s various relationships, and trading off toddler-harassing duties. All this, of course, bathed in the noise and laughter of adults coming together because we enjoy each other’s company, and bubbling over with the joy of knowing we are among our people.

Sometimes I find myself in an awkward position trying to explain exactly what was so special about a couple friends over on a Wednesday night, and I marvel at how my life has grown. We never have to be normal people, but we get to be true to the people that we want to be.

What Is Your Gender?

One of the topics that we haven’t addressed directly is the issue of gender. Recently I have been seeing an increase in discussion on these topics and a change in how the mainstream is presented with gender. To that point Facebook supports between 50 and 71 choices for gender and OKCupid will soon have about 20 gender and sexuality options.

When I say gender I don’t mean biological sex, I mean your expression and what your culture expects based on how they perceive that expression. For example if I describe someone as a Man or as a Gay Man do you have different expectations about their behavior, dress, and appearance? That is part of your cultural expectation of gender.

Here is a rough estimation of my gender expression (as scored by Rose)

Gender Identification

As you can see she sees me as having some very feminine qualities. This is a pretty comprehensive description of the categories that describe how I present to the world: my body shape, how I dress, how I speak/sound, my behavior, and what my interests are. This is what people see when they make an assessment of what my gender is. Overall, you can see I didn’t score particularly high on masculinity.

You will notice that this is very basic, it is the stuff that exists from across the street, or over the phone. Think about that for a moment. If you are talking to me on the phone (according to Rose) I am much more masculine than if you see me on the street and can’t hear me speak. Your interpretation of my expression can be entirely different from my internal identity.

Why are there so many gender identities?

Part of why there are so many gender identities is because that chart above is only part of the story. How we choose our label is more than just the behaviors that are readily observed, but also the motivations behind them. Factors like where we fall on a biological sex spectrum (see this article for more) and our identity in relation to sexual orientation can affect how we choose our gender identity, and how we express it.

This means that as we change various things about our behavior and appearance we may shift subtlety. Even though a person may spend their entire life in the same general area that doesn’t mean they haven’t changed. A wide variety of factors including changing cultural groups, medication, and parenthood (even a fathers hormones change in response to children) all can change the factors that make up your gender identity.

Remember this please, gender is not sex or sexual orientation, two people with exactly the same identity and expression can have different sexual orientations.

So, how can you tell what a persons gender is?

You can’t. You have to ask them. Viewing yourself as a man has nothing to do with being manly. Viewing yourself as queer has nothing to do with your sexual preferences. And, wearing short hair and a flannel shirt doesn’t make you any less a woman.

Love and Empathy

Previously I have said that the cost of love is ego. While enacting love we show empathy for another’s experience. But, it turns out that showing empathy for people we don’t identify with is difficult.

Today I read an article by Jonathan Chait. It is best described as a deeply flawed pan-flute of bigotry. He intones a wide variety of dog-whistle political attacks with carefully coded language to cast blame on women, people of color, and liberals for policing the tone and language of discussions/arguments about bigotry. In total it was a difficult thing to read through, but it is a very resonant display of distain. Chait does not have empathy for other people’s experience, he is the kind of man whose opinion about a thing is directly linked to whether it affects him. Like when a politician changes their stance on marriage after their child publicly comes out.

What Chait puts forward is a powerful ego response, many of the things he critiques are ego too, constrained by his personal experience and identity. He shuffles through a variety of stories about people that failing an ideological test. When a real world opportunity for empathy comes to them they hide in the letter of their philosophy, instead of the spirit. They become ideologues and extremists, because they fear a loss of identity if they occupy an opposing view or feeling.

In my real life I run into a frequent test of my empathy. When someone tells me that they have lost a loved one. I know what that is like, I have experienced it. Reliving my experience is not empathy, accepting and taking on their perspective–there in that moment–is empathy.

This year I took Rockford with me when I got a flu shot. Imagine being two-and-a-half years old and a stranger has a hypodermic. My kid is a trooper he wanted to sit in my lap, he remembers what a shot is, his ego response was to solve this imminent problem through comfort. He calmed down immediately when he realized that he wasn’t getting a shot. His eyes got wide and he pouted when the nurse pushed the needle into my shoulder. He reached out his hand and said, “Papa, ouch?!” I told him, “I’m okay,” he sat in my lap to gently (thank god) pat my bandaid and coo, “Papa. Ouch, okay.”

To me that is what empathy and love are, it isn’t about my experience, it is about sharing the other person’s experience.

Christmas Songs for Grumpy People

Now that Thanksgiving is over, even the totally reasonable retail establishment where I work has taken a turn for the Christmas-y. The radio has been switched to a “holiday” station, and so it begins: the time of Christmas music. I personally like to celebrate the season by arguing with loved ones over which holiday songs are the worst. Carlos’s personal peeve is “Little Drummer Boy,” and the folks I work with universally hate “Dominick the Donkey.” But I’m trying to be a little more positive this year, so instead of addressing why we should all drop Bing Crosby from our Christmas playlists (it’s because of domestic violence), I thought I would share Rose’s List of Acceptable Christmas Songs! In no particular order:

The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping.”

Harvey Danger, “Sometimes You Have to Work On Christmas”

Robert Earl Keene, “Merry Christmas From The Family”

Nightmare Before Christmas, “Making Christmas”

And because it IS well loved, just not especially by me, Pogues, “Fairytale of New York”

Sanctuary

Winter is coming to Columbus, Ohio, one chilly evening at a time. Last year was terrible (I am told; it was exactly what I expected) and this year is supposed to be similar. For a pair of desert-bred, west-coast softies, this means it’s time to buckle down into some serious preparation of our home. It also means spending some time contemplating the ways that we want our home to feel, to welcome friends, to offer us peace and sanctuary.

Part of me is annoyed at the growing discovery of exactly how much of my comfort at home boils down to things being clean. I think back to my mom telling me about her mom warning her that she would never been a good housekeeper, and the scorn in my mom’s voice at the idea that that mattered. I have no qualms admitting that housework is a really weak area for me, too, and just like my mom, I can trace its lineage, though nothing productive comes from examining why I hate washing dishes. Recently, I have managed to clean every dish in the kitchen for one week straight, which is frankly kind of embarrassing at almost-34. But I feel really happy about it. I appreciate that everything is in its place and ready at hand when I wake up in the morning, and the feeling of relief is greater than that. I didn’t realize how much my dirty kitchen was putting me in a defensive position about having people in my home. And I am tired of being defensive about my life.

With just the few dishes left from breakfast sitting in the sink, my worry is free to settle on the laundry on my bedroom floor – except it’s all in the washing machine. So, on to the next topic, and each little domino falls away. With no space to settle on the floors, the dishes, the laundry, I find my mind traveling with ease to the places that need love but don’t cry out for it every day. I know (I KNOW) it’s really basic, but putting the time into the little stuff every day keeps that stuff little, and keeps the bigger stuff from becoming overwhelming. We had a houseguest for a whole weekend, and hosted a brunch at the same time, and I never felt the pressure that my space wasn’t good enough or welcoming enough. Of course, we are still untidy, beset on all sides by toddler toys and dog hair, but that is our reality of life with dogs and kids.

Another thing that’s really basic, but I’m still learning: as I feel less defensive about the work I’m doing, I feel more joy in it. My next project is making insulating Kume curtains, and they’re going to be awesome. They are going to be awesome not only because they should greatly improve the heat retention of our old house, but also because they’re something that I get to do to make our house our home. In the meantime, I know that when I step away, my sanctuary remains, relatively undisturbed by the detritus of neglect.

 

photo courtesy of Max Baars

Special Sauce

Let’s talk about food!

Remember, back in the day, when this was a blog about pie? Simpler times, those. As much as our lives have changed since back in 2011, some things have remained more or less constant. In particular, we are still deadly serious about food.

Upon arrival at our transitional home in Columbus, Carlos discovered that we lived practically across the street from Penzey’s. The only other time I’ve been in a Penzey’s store is the one right outside Pike Place Market in Seattle, so I was surprised and delighted to find one in our somewhat unremarkable neighborhood. And even better? THEY HAVE BERI BERI!

In our Seattle neighborhood, we were surrounded by Ethiopian restaurants, so much so that the smell of onions and turmeric would perfume the whole world some mornings. Even as recently as April, despite having been gone from Seattle for more than two years, the proprietor of our favorite (Assimba, if you’re curious) greeted us with the most joyful “salaam” I have ever received. Needless to say, we accepted the loss of abundant, inexpensive Ethiopian food as part of the price we had to pay in pursuit of larger goals.

Despite the fact that it is fundamentally just delicious stew, we never quite got up the gumption to try making our favorite dishes at home. Never, that is, until we discovered that my favorite purveyor of fresh and delicious spices stocks the bright, pungent powder that makes the magic happen. And you guys? Nothing will ever be the same again.

So, yes, obviously we have made a TON of key wat, doro wat, doro wat with turkey thighs, key wat pie. And it has all been pretty fantastic, honestly. But recently, something even better has come out of our beri beri obsession. Something so simple and powerful that I still wonder why I didn’t think of it myself, except that I know. It’s just not my style, but it is, to our great surprise and delight, Carlos’s: home-made barbecue sauce.

Homemade, wat-inspired, spicy, tangy, sweet, eat it with a spoon until your throat burns PERFECT SAUCE. How perfect is this sauce? Look:

saucysauce

This sauce is so good that I’ll show you the only in-progress picture, which also happens to hint at how long it has been since I cleaned my stovetop.

I would share the recipe with you, but… It’s not mine, and it doesn’t live in my brain. I will say, though, that it has convinced me that it’s totally worthwhile to go a little deeper into culinary adventures. Even though there are plenty of great sauces out there, the effort that went into this is absolutely worth it for how far above and beyond even the best pre-made sauces this is.

The only thing about this wonderful development that still baffles us is this: what has happened that has turned Carlos into the kind of man who makes his own BBQ sauce? There is no event in our history that we can point to and say, “this is the moment that changed things.” Whatever it was, I am a fan!