Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Am I Female?

I consider myself a very liberal person.  I support same-sex marriage, the decriminalization of marijuana and prostitution, stricter gun laws, more generous attitudes toward immigration, the right to have abortions, and legally-available doctor-assisted suicide.  I also support transgender persons using whatever restrooms they choose, and I think anybody who refuses to call a person by the person’s sincerely preferred pronouns is being an ass.

People make fun of the ignorantly racist white guy who defends himself by saying, “But I can’t be racist!  I have a black friend!”  Perhaps the preceding paragraph is my own attempt at eschewing blame for my narrow-minded ways, but I admit to being a bit perplexed by “gender” as the term is used today.  I’m not sure what it means, and I’m tempted to think it means absolutely nothing.  Until recently, I have always thought of myself as male and have had no issues with that.  (Some would call this a form of “privilege,” and I wouldn’t argue.  By no means do I feel I’ve struggled with issues surrounding gender and sexual orientation—which, to be clear, are not the same thing—in a way that comes anywhere near the struggles countless people have faced.)  But lately, as I try to wrap my mind around what we’re even discussing when we discuss gender, I find myself questioning if it’s a useful term at all.  Whether it’s because I’m buying into “gender” as I see the word defined for modern audiences or simply rejecting every definition I encounter, the end result seems to be the same: I might be female after all.

A year ago, The New York Times posted an article titled “The ABCs of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+.”  Using this as a resource, I find myself fitting into several categories I once thought had no application to me.  For example, if the “Q” in “LGBTQIA+” stands for “questioning”— a common interpretation—then the mere fact that I’m writing this blog post demonstrates that I am “Q.”  However, I am also (in this moment of writing) a transgender person, at least according to the definition offered by the article.  That is, I am someone “whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the biological sex … assigned at birth.”  How so?  Well, since I’m currently questioning whether or not I’m male, I’m clearly not expressing or identifying as male, which was the sex assigned to me at birth.  This also makes me “gender nonconforming” and “nonbinary,” as I understand the terms.  Apparently, I may even be a “graysexual,” which is defined as “someone who occasionally experiences sexual attraction but usually does not.”  I doubt that I experience sexual attraction at least 51% of the time, but I don’t know if I’m supposed to include only my waking hours or only times when I’m actually seeing or thinking about another person, and I don’t know if it needs to be based on my entire lifespan, the last couple of weeks, or just since I woke up this morning.

At this point, some readers will think I’m being an arrogant and unsupportive smartass.  I assure you, that’s not my intent.  Of course, I don’t know how I could ever convince you of that.  When I state things in a way that sounds absurd, my point is not to say that the issue is absurd or that the people who identify with one of the terms being discussed are absurd.  Rather, I am expressing the fact that I am sincerely unclear about what these labels even mean.  As a philosophy student—which I have been for the majority of my adult life—I was trained to be extremely picky about definitions.  If a definition allowed for things it shouldn’t, it was considered problematic.  The definition of “graysexual” provided by the NYT seems clearly too broad.  As such, it is not entirely helpful.  Some would wave their hands in annoyance and say, “Okay, Mr. Picky Pants, but you get the idea.”  And maybe I do—loosely.  But that doesn’t alleviate the problem so much as highlight it.  Am I a graysexual?  Can I identify as a graysexual?  Who gets to decide?  Does it matter what other people think, or only what I think?  Do I have to fit your definition, or just my own?  These questions are at the very heart of the debate, insofar as there is one, concerning gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.  I would normally think “graysexual” applies only to those who experience less sexual attraction than I do.  But is it ever for me to decide who gets to claim that title and who doesn’t?  What if someone who experiences sexual attraction more often than I do sincerely identifies as a graysexual?  Is it my place to say that person isn’t or can’t be one?  And if it isn’t my place to say, and if I recognize that fact and sincerely endorse it, then doesn’t it make rational sense for me also to identify as a graysexual, since the term will seem even more applicable to me?

The same rationale allows me—and perhaps even compels me—to accept that I am just as female as I am male.  After all, what does “female” mean if it does not apply to biological sex?  Is there any trait—any trait at all, other than self-identification—that is required for a person to be female?  If not, then as a rational person, I will recognize the fact that nothing about me precludes me from identifying as female.  In other words, I will see that I am as female as anyone can possibly be, if only I will accept the fact.  And if I continue being rational, I will accept the fact—and voila, it turns out I am literally and truly female.  And nobody can tell me I’m not.  I have met the only requirement that exists.  On the other hand, if there is a minimum requirement to being female … well, what is it?  If physical characteristics have nothing to do with being female, then what personality traits must a female inhabit?  Are we comfortable saying females necessarily possess certain personality traits, or that the absence of certain personality traits guarantees a person is not or cannot be a female no matter how that person sincerely identifies?  That sounds contrary to the debate as I’ve understood it.

It doesn’t stop there.  Once I have deduced that I am in fact female (and male by the same principles, mutatis mutandis), I will recognize the fact that I am a lesbian, since I am indeed attracted to other women.  Of course, of the myriad people I’ve ever felt attracted to, I have only truly known the gender identity of a very small percentage.  Many of them I have merely seen in passing and have known nothing more about them than their physical appearances.  So, I am obviously attracted to people regardless of their gender identity, which according to the NYT makes me a pansexual.  By the same source, I am also most certainly “genderqueer” and “gender fluid.”

Anyone who bristles at the conclusions I’ve drawn should not frown upon me.  I’m not the bad guy—or woman, for that matter.  If umbrage must be taken, it should be with the definitions provided by the NYT (and any definitions similar thereto).  If they are inadequate, let it be known how.  But be warned: definitions place boundaries on who or what can lay claim to a certain label.  Do we wish to do that with labels pertaining to gender and sexual orientation?  My gut tells me most liberals do not, which is fine by me—I’m willing to be a team player—but if we set any ground rules, we have to accept the consequences.  I may lack imagination, but I’m finding it very difficult to think of any such rules that will simultaneously please liberals (myself included) and prevent rational persons such as myself from recognizing the fact that, like it or not, I am both male and female.  At least we can agree on one thing: gender identity isn’t a matter of choice.  As it turns out, it may be a matter of logic.

Monday, May 27, 2019


Photo by David Talley on Unsplash
Back in July 2017, Melanie and I took our boys to Seattle.  They had never been there, and one of Melanie’s brothers had moved to the area several years earlier when he took a job with Microsoft.  We stayed with his family in the quaint and pleasant suburb of Duvall.  It was a really great experience.  Something about the Pacific Northwest speaks to my soul.  I fell in love with it within minutes—literally—of exiting SeaTac airport on my first visit back in 1992.  As soon as I felt the crisp Washington air and beheld the gray skies and abundance of lush green trees, I was absolutely smitten.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to visit this particular corner of the world many times now.  Melanie and I even honeymooned in Seattle and British Columbia.  Without exaggeration, I often feel “homesick” for the place.  Of the very few items on my bucket list, living in the Pacific Northwest may just be at the top.

If you’re like me, being on vacation—especially somewhere that you really love—naturally leads to an examination of your life.  Freed from the burdens of everyday life—from the day-to-day responsibilities, obligations, and “have to’s”—you have an opportunity to connect with your true self, to take inventory of your hopes, dreams, and ambitions, and to reassess your life trajectory.  I have always found myself in a rather self-reflective state when visiting the PNW.  It has always left me inspired.  Of course, the weeds of normal life grow at an alarmingly fast rate; they often choke one’s motivation within a day or two of returning home.  But thanks to a little catchphrase, my 2017 visit to Seattle has stuck with me a little better than most.

“Kick ass by 50.”  That’s my goal.  And it’s a holistic goal.  By the time I am 50 years old, I want to be living the best life I’ve ever lived.  It’s not just about me as a person.  Yes, I hope to be in very good physical health, even if that is necessarily followed by an asterisk that notes “some restrictions apply.”  Yes, I hope to have made tremendous advancements as a musician.  Yes, I hope to have read a lot of great books and to have seen a lot of amazing movies.  But it goes beyond that.  I want to kick ass at 50, but I also want my life to kick ass when I’m 50.  Do you see the difference?  To the maximum degree possible, I want every moment of my waking hours to feel like a manifestation of me.  This means I need to be in a career that feels like me.  It’s not enough to have a secure job that sufficiently pays the bills.  This means the way I spend my free time needs to feel like an investment in and/or an expression of the me that I like the most.  At the risk of sounding like a whiny, entitled, self-absorbed teenager—although I’m probably ripe for the type of midlife crisis that would lend to such attitudes—I want my home, my clothes, my car, and everything else to feel like a manifestation of me.

Let me be clear.  I’m not talking about being a selfish prick.  I’m not talking about being immature or irresponsible.  I’m not talking about being a self-centered asshole who doesn’t care how my actions impact the people and the world around me.  If you know me, you know those sorts of attitudes don’t describe me at all.  (Well, mostly.)  What I’m talking about is something that I believe any rational and reasonably intelligent person would agree with and endorse, and something that we probably all seek.  I even believe there is a moral obligation to pursue the type of life I mean.  (More on that in a future post.)  I have felt all too cognizant of the fact that life is fleeting.  Because of that, I can get pretty depressed when I realize just how rarely I see the me that I absolutely love and adore.  Yes, there is a me that I think is pretty darn awesome.  And unique.  And I believe everyone has that inside them.  Which is what makes it so incredibly tragic if those beautiful, unique, wonderful individuals are mostly kept in a box and rarely see the light of day.  No offense to anyone who believes in reincarnation, but none of us is coming around again.  This is it.  If the best you—by which I mean the real you—gets to come out and play only once in a blue moon—that is, if the one person whose life you’ve been most intimately entrusted with—yourself—only gets to make an occasional guest appearance in this world … well, that’s just a tragedy beyond anything else I can possibly imagine.

I consider myself fortunate that my life has been moving steadily in the “kick ass” direction since moving back to Utah in 2014.  There’s still plenty of work to do, which is probably why I chose “kick ass by 50” rather than “kick ass by 45” or what would’ve been the extremely ambitious goal of “kick ass by 39.”  I’m now 40, a little bit more kick ass than I was at 39 but nowhere near the kick ass I’ll be at 50.  That said, I hope to make great kick ass strides every year between now and then.  I really believe I will, and that’s rather exciting.  Oh, and lest there be any confusion, I don’t plan to retire from kick-assery at 50.  I’ll keep going with it.  Perhaps I’ll set a new goal at that time.  Bad ass motherfucker by 80 or some such.  We’ll see.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Of Carrots and Chord Progressions

This past weekend, I participated in a two-day concert event put on by my guitar school.  Approximately 10 bands played three songs each on both Friday and Saturday night.  Even though things never go quite as smoothly as I hope—sometimes I feel destined to do my worst when I’m in front of an audience—it was nice to spend a whole weekend devoted to being a musician.  Not only do I enjoy the opportunity to perform, but I enjoy the validation I get from a solid performance.  When I know it went well, I feel my musicianship confirmed.  When I leave the stage and a teenager stops me as I pass by to point his finger at my chest and state with the utmost conviction, “You!  You.  Are.  A-maaa-zing!” I think maybe I’m not so crazy for feeling like music is my calling, that I really am most in my element when I’m playing it.

On Sunday night, I thought of the day job that awaited me on the morrow.  The incongruity I felt is hard to put into words.  In the past, I have tried to capture my feelings about my job by saying things like, “It feels so foreign to me,” “it feels so unlike me,” “I feel like a phony, an outsider, a pretender,” and so on.  I worry these descriptions conjure the wrong ideas in other people’s minds, however.  One could easily suppose I hate my job, that I find it depressing or miserable.  But I don’t think those descriptions are accurate, at least not a majority of the time.  Instead, my job feels like it has nothing to do with me.  And that’s why I don’t think it’s a good fit.  Sure, I could be much more miserable.  Being in the military is the sort of job I would absolutely hate, find depressing, and feel 100% miserable in.  Thank God that’s not my life.  And yet my current job is one from which I often feel wholly detached.  My team at work was recently assigned a book to read.  The book is one of those self-help for the business-world type of books, all about how to be an effective manager.  When I encounter business jargon—revenue, return-on-investment, spreadsheets—I cannot explain how utterly dead those words are to me.  It’s not that I recoil at them.  It’s that I feel absolutely nothing toward them.  It’s the same emotional response you’d get from me if you had me read a book that was just a series of random numbers.  It is sterile.  Lifeless.  Non-existent, somehow.  I wish I could better put it into words, but I don’t know what else I can say.  If you created a Venn diagram where you put everything that seems real about me into a circle, and you put all of this business crap in another circle, there would be no overlap whatsoever.  But of course, my day job does revolve around the business world, so my life does overlap with it in some sense.  But not in a way that feels real.  It truly feels like the business world has absolutely nothing to do with me, and I don’t want really want it to.

Today, on Facebook, a friend of mine who is also a college professor posted that he had submitted final grades for the semester.  Once in a while something innocent like this reminds that another world exists, a world that I once knew and occupied.  There’s always something startling about it, this realization that a world better suited for me really exists and somehow persists without me.  Part of me wants to cry out in genuine bafflement, “What the hell?  How is this happening?”  It’s not because I think that world needs me.  It’s that it doesn’t make sense for me to be outside of it.  There is always a sharp pang of recognition in these moments, a quasi out-of-body experience wherein I catch a glimpse of a life I once occupied but am now wholly invisible to.  It’s weird and a bit unsettling.  Have you ever tried to break a really thick stick, one that requires you to strain with all of your might and teases you with several seconds of cracking noises before it finally snaps in two?  Has it ever required so much force that, once the stick does snap in half, a stinging sensation shoots through the overexerted muscles in your arms like a needle-thin bolt of lightning?  That’s how it feels whenever I encounter this other world, the one that I should inhabit, and see that it doesn’t exist only in my imagination.  It makes me homesick.  I long to be part of that world—a world that revolves around intellectualism and artistic endeavors.

I was recently told at work that, over the next several months, my job will be expanding in such a way that I can look forward to a nice pay raise.  One manager even told me I could end up making “lots” more money in the relatively near future.  I was glad to hear that; it means the company is invested in me and that I don’t need to worry about losing my job any time soon.  It also means that, if I stick with this company longer than I currently expect, I’ll at least have a better income.  But you may be surprised how little I care about the money.  That’s just not the type of carrot I need dangled before my eyes.  It won’t motivate me.  I don’t want to run this race.  I honestly think they could double my salary tomorrow, and it wouldn’t change anything about what I plan to do.  The more they pay me, the more at ease I’ll be if it takes me longer to abandon ship than I think.  But nothing’s going to stop me from climbing into that lifeboat and heading for a new shore.  Wish me luck.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Resurrecting a Repository of Ruminations

It’s likely premature to declare this blog resurrected, although I have rechristened it, changed the appearance a bit, and find myself posting for the first time in over a year. This will again be a living, breathing blog only if I post consistently, which is something I haven’t done since early 2016. Why would anything change now? Well, I have my reasons for thinking this could truly be the beginning of a blogging renaissance for me. I’ve been on quite a “gotta-get-back-to-being-me” kick lately. Granted, much of what I’ve done over the past five years—leaving a Ph.D. program, changing religions, getting a job, re-immersing myself in music, and later leaving religion altogether—has been the result of my seeking to make life more perfect, more my own, more what I personally desire it to be. And life has gotten better over the last five years—in rather tremendous ways. But I feel I am on the cusp of yet another monumental transition, one that will reclaim elements of my past that I love and dearly miss, and yet that somehow became the proverbial baby who was thrown out with the bath water.

I’m eager to share my intentions, because I find them exciting. And yet I also fear certain people learning of my intentions before I want them to. It’s a ridiculous paranoia, I know, given that nobody reads this blog. There’s no doubt that I’m speaking into a void. And yet what if a random Google search by a co-worker were to land them upon my page? Or has in the past, and that person subscribed to my posts without ever telling me? As unlikely as that may be, it’s not a totally absurd notion. I’m pretty sure I Googled all of my co-workers at some point in time or another. It’s what we do as humans nowadays, isn’t it? I’ve never used my surname on this blog, but it’s otherwise been a pretty open book. Hell, anyone who’s talked to me for five minutes can deduce that “Ben + Diet Mountain Dew” would make a strong Google search if you were trying to track down my online presence. It wouldn’t surprise me if this blog were the #1 search result for that particular phrase.

Alas, I shall throw caution to the wind and speak as if there is someone listening, but only someone I feel safe talking to. Like any other story, the one I’m about to tell could be made longer or shorter, and the longer version could be made longer still. I will aim for brevity, but it’s never been my strong suit, particularly when I’m writing about my own life. There are so many thoughts and feelings, and I have a tendency to try to capture them all. But enough of the preliminaries. I will skip right to the juicy stuff, then backtrack and add details until I grow sufficiently bored. The bottom line is this: I am actively pursuing a career as an English teacher on the secondary school level, preferably high school. I haven’t applied for any teaching jobs yet, but I’ve taken steps toward acquiring my teaching license. In Utah, this includes signing up for a Praxis exam and doing a background check. So long as I pass the exam (which I take in early July) and the background check (which I already have), then it’s just a matter of filling out some forms and paying some fees before I’m officially licensed to teach. This is because I already have a bachelor’s degree. In something. It doesn’t even matter what my degrees are in, provided I pass the Praxis. Isn’t that awesome? Up until a few weeks ago, I had no idea it could be this easy. Fortunately for me, a teacher shortage compelled the State of Utah in 2016 to allow people like me to acquire teaching licenses in the manner I’ve described. If that weren’t exciting enough, I looked into the necessary exam for someone wanting to teach English at the secondary level, and I was shocked just how many of the practice exam questions were absolute no-brainers to me. Questions related to poetic structure and/or pedagogy aren’t my strong suit, given that I didn’t major or minor in English. But I can learn enough of that stuff between now and July to pass the Praxis exam without a problem. I’m thrilled! So thrilled, in fact, that I now find it almost unbearable to be at my current job. I just hope I can land a teaching gig for the fall. It’s rather late in the calendar year for me to be starting down this road, but I remain optimistic. Perhaps I’m more optimistic than I deserve to be, but I’m optimistic nevertheless.

For the record, it is both my desire to teach and my desire to leave my current job that motivate me. I enjoyed teaching college as a graduate student. I didn’t abandon my Ph.D. program because I didn’t like the idea of teaching. On the contrary, I realized I only liked the teaching. And that was because I was teaching undergraduate courses. The idea of seeking a tenure-track position at a research university, where I would teach grad students and be held to the “publish or perish” model of professional accountability, was anything but appealing to me. And that’s why I decided against completing my Ph.D. The idea of teaching, however, is one I’ve never completely given up on. And I’ve long been open to the idea of teaching high school. I just didn’t know it was such a live possibility for me. I thought it would require going back to school and getting an education degree, and that just feels like too much to take on at this point in my life. But knowing I can teach as easily as I can—well, it’s rekindled a fire I thought was all but permanently extinguished.

On the other side of the same coin is the fact that my current job is, at its best, unfulfilling. Up until recently, I’ve been rather content in my job because it has been low-stress and there are so many great perks—schedule flexibility, the ability to work from home, tons of PTO, etc. But there has long been a part of me that is fully aware I am wasting my potential by staying at my job. I have always wanted to do something meaningful, something existentially valuable. A job in marketing is never going to fit the bill. And so it feels like a genuine tragedy—and I actually mean that very literally—when I think of the time I’m wasting in a job like I currently have. Recently, my dissatisfaction has only increased as the aforementioned perks have been scaled back and new management has taken my job in a different direction. The pay has increased, and I’ve been promised another raise around the corner. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I couldn’t care less about what I do. It feels so wholly other to me, so ill-fitting for my personality and interests. I want my life to be a manifestation of me. Anything else is bat-shit crazy, isn’t it? It’s just a damn shame I’m in my forties and still have to iron out so many wrinkles.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Dragon Lights, Dragon Lies

Dragon Lights is a Chinese-themed festival running through May 6th at the Utah State Fairpark. I saw something about it on Facebook, thought it looked pretty cool, and bought tickets for the family. Our tickets were for yesterday, Sunday, March 25th. I bought the tickets only a couple of days in advance, on a day when showed absolutely nothing worrisome in its Sunday forecast. The plan was for us to have an early dinner at one of our favorite Utah Chinese restaurants (located about 25 minutes away) and then backtrack to the fairgrounds. It would be a fun and different way for us to spend time together as a family. I was really looking forward to it.

Sunday morning came and went. The weather was nice. Then, around the time we were to head out, it started snowing. And then it started to snow harder. And harder. While this was disappointing because it didn’t sound fun to walk around in such bad weather, we didn’t have the option of changing our plans. The tickets were date-specific, and as the Dragon Lights website reports in their FAQ section, the festival would be held come “rain, snow or shine.” Plus, even when the snow started coming down fairly fast and furious, showed nothing in the hourly forecast about snow. Probably, it would all let up quite soon.

Melanie, the boys, and I piled into our car and headed to the freeway. As we cruised down (up? We were going north, after all) the Interstate, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with our commute. I suggested we go to a much closer Chinese restaurant, one I had been to a couple of times but that Melanie and the boys had not. Nobody had any objections, so I exited the freeway and quickly found the alternate restaurant. It was closed for the Sabbath. Damn!

I shrugged and figured I’d try again to head to Bountiful, the location of our first-choice Chinese restaurant. Meanwhile, Melanie started searching for nearby Chinese restaurants on her phone. My rekindled determination to get to Bountiful quickly fizzled when, once again, I found it very difficult to see through the snow while driving on the freeway. Melanie suggested that we eat at Sampan, a nearby Chinese restaurant Melanie and I were quite fond of back before we got married. I had no interest in driving all the way to Bountiful via city streets, so I agreed. Within a few minutes, we were safe, cozy, and relaxed, sitting at a table and looking over our menus.

Our food was great. It’s probably the best Chinese food I’ve had since moving back to Utah. I don’t know why we haven’t revisited Sampan before now. I’ve tried several other Chinese places since moving back, and only a few have seemed adequate, much less quite tasty. Perhaps because I so loved the Chinese restaurant we used to frequent while living in Tallahassee, I had zero hope of finding anything of note in Utah. Adequate was the best I had hoped for. And maybe I just assumed that Sampan would be as mediocre as anything else, after being disillusioned by my first few forays into Chinese cuisine as a recently returned Utah native. But, man, Sampan was yummy. The boys thought so, too, as did Melanie. Hanging out together at a restaurant in-and-of itself was also quite lovely. We really enjoyed our time. And, wouldn’t you know it, the snow let up quite a bit while we dined. It didn’t stop snowing completely, but it had been reduced to small flakes falling in slow motion. Nothing to worry about whatsoever.

With full bellies, we climbed back into our car and headed to the Utah State Fairpark. A minor detour was involved, thanks to a slow-moving freight train—a common occurrence in that neighborhood, as I remember from my childhood. (I grew up relatively close to the fairgrounds. A junior high field trip even involved walking there, which I thought was nuts at the time and perhaps even more nuts now.) But, despite arriving nearly 90 minutes later than I had wanted and planned to, we finally made it.

Then we saw the sign. Dragon Lights had been canceled for the evening, I can only assume due to weather. The bastards.

As I said, the festival runs through the beginning of May, and according to the posted sign, we can use our tickets for any other day. But the only reason we fought through the snow in the first place was because the Dragon Lights website had ensured us that it would not be canceled due to inclement weather. It wasn’t pee pee in my Coke, but it felt like a joke, that’s for sure.

Oh well. We still had a good time.