Friday, May 22, 2015

Happy Days Passed and Happy Days to Come

Yesterday marked a major milestone in Normal Family: Rowdy Cousin graduated from college. I couldn't make the event, busy as I was with preparations for work and the summer sessions of graduate school, but I sent my congratulations by text message and viewed the Facebook photos of Rowdy Cousin surrounded by happy family members. This relative of mine, whom you've gotten a few glimpses of over the years, received his pseudonym in 2009 or so, when he was a rambunctious boy of fifteen. Back then, when he wasn't playing hide-and-go-seek in our grandmother's basement, he occasionally pulled me aside to ask questions about relationships and college drinking. Rowdy Cousin is twenty-one years old now, and the pictures of him this week reveal unmistakably what those close have known for a while: the boy has become a man. Broad shouldered, tall, robust, and handsome, he smiled into the camera beside his mother and long-time girlfriend. 

Rowdy Cousin long ago passed the point where I could teach him anything. He once asked me about what parties were like; now he's been to more than I have. He once asked me about how he'd know what he wanted his major to be; he already has a job offer from a prominent accounting firm and will begin work--at a very competitive salary--next month. He once asked me about dating; he's been in a relationship with a lovely girl for more than four years. Rowdy Cousin is one of those rare people who makes other people happy with just the fact of them. He's athletic and outgoing, hardworking and good looking, intelligent and accomplished and humble and courtly. On top of all that, he's pretty damn funny. He understands he's a gem but has no ego about it, understands he's a walking cliché and sends my brother Snapchats of himself on the toilet just to remind everyone that he's still capable of being an idiot. I am pleased to see this young man blossom so spectacularly, and I am very aware, as is everyone else, that his success is the culmination of the tremendous investment his parents made in his education and emotional development. Rowdy Cousin paid no tuition. He worried about no bills. He covered no cell phone. He spent four years devoted to study and, yes, fun. And it worked. 

"It's like Uncle Responsible says," my grandmother told me on the phone today. "You invest in them when they're young, then you see it pay off down the road. And now it's really paid off."

I would never tell Rowdy Cousin this, but beneath my joy at his accomplishments, all of which he has earned, there is a tinge of sorrow. I can't help but look at this person, six years younger than I am but already so strong, and see the things I'm not. Self sufficient. Successful. Confident. Possessed of striking good looks. Rowdy Cousin is a high-achiever in a family of high-achievers, and at twenty-seven and without a career, even if I'm headed in that direction, I'm not. At least not yet. 

"I guess sometimes I feel like I'm bringing the group average down or something," I joked to my grandmother this evening by telephone. I've never had the kind of parents a person is thankful for, but I am grateful every day for my grandmother. I would have been lost many times without her, and she's the one person I can talk to about truly anything. "I love Rowdy Cousin , but it's like I don't measure up. You know?"

"Oh, BB, he's never felt that way about you."

"No, I know. He's not like that. I'm saying that I feel that way. I look at what he's done and I look at what I've done. I know I'm getting there now; it's just a few years later than I wanted it to be."

"Honey, you've had a lot of things thrown at you," she said. "He hasn't. Of course he should be proud of what he's done, but it's not the same thing. You have no idea how proud I am of you."

And then my grandmother did the last thing I imagined she would do. She started crying. 

"Oh, don't cry! I'm fine! I'm really not upset."

"But you don't remember. You were so young. When you first got sick we talked to so many doctors. We were in and out of the hospital, meeting with different psychiatrists, and I read everything I could get my hands on. So I know what it does. I know what you were going up against. And I can tell you, it's a miracle that you are where you are. The recovery rate is so low."

That depressingly small number--I've seen it quoted as low as 3%--means that I ought statistically have been condemned to a very different kind of life than the one I am leading. I suppose for a while I was. And my transition around age twenty, for reasons that are unclear, into the exceptional group who are able to regain their health is something I am enormously thankful for every day. 

"You're on the right track now, and you shouldn't feel any shame. Of course it took a few more years. And when you add the parents you got on top of that, it's really incredible that you pulled it off."

"Well, I haven't pulled it off yet."

"But you will. I know you're going to be okay."

I know I am too, at least now. I look at where I was even five years ago, at twenty-two, and can see in my decisions disarray and impaired judgement, chronic confusion atop foundational disorganization. I finished my undergraduate studies with a 2.7 GPA, avoiding any discussion of my health issue, let alone treatment of it, out of shame and a desire to be viewed "like everyone else." But I wasn't like everyone else. And in light of that, maybe it's okay to give my past self a few breaks. 

"I still have hazy moments," I confided to my grandmother. "They're very quick, and no one ever picks up on it. But my thought process now, my work ethic, my priorities, my plans, everything else is totally different."

"I know it is. I can see how much you've changed."

Summer sessions start next Wednesday, and Russian lessons start the Monday after that. This fall will mark my last semester of academic work, and after a semester of student-teaching in the spring I'll graduate with my master's degree in education. Ready to work and ready to go. I'm not playing it by ear anymore, not by any stretch of the imagination. Hell, I have an eight-year plan that rests substantially on my mastery of Russian grammar.

"I'm really proud of Rowdy Cousin today," I told her. "I know you are, too. And in a year, you can be proud of me."

"I already am."

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Birthday Filled With Promise

The following is an excerpt from my personal journal, two days after my twenty-seventh birthday.

April 12, 2015

I turned twenty-seven years old on Friday, April 10, 2015, and had a very pleasant weekend, indeed. The first thing to strike me was the fact of my age: that I am actually three years from thirty, actually a decade past seventeen and six years past twenty-one. What I've realized, however, in all this surreality, is that what any age means is, developmental considerations aside, completely arbitrary. I don't need to be where anyone else is at twenty-seven; my twenty-seven is what I make it. And so as a twenty-seven-year-old I am serious and sober, funny and fun loving, responsible and reserved, goofy and garrulous. I am a series of contradictions that add up to something lovely.

The passage of another year is, of course, a time at which I naturally reflect on where I've been and where I want to go. Of late, perhaps exacerbated because my twenty-nine-year-old cousin Perfect just gave birth to her first child (a little girl), I've felt a great yearning for companionship and then children. Children aren't something I desire in the immediate future, mind you, but they're something I can just see on the horizon, something by the time I am exiting my early thirties I imagine I'll be very ready for. I dream all the time of those children, of what they'd look like and what personality qualities they'd have, what their interests would be and what kind of life I would provide for them.

And I dream too of a husband. Of a boyfriend first, but definitely of a romantic partner. Someone who'd hold me and tell me I was beautiful, someone to whom I could confide anything, someone who would hear my victories and my sorrows and care for both, and someone whose victories and sorrows I would care about in turn. Occasionally I wonder if I'm holding out for the perfect man, searching for something I can never find, but then I ask what's so unreasonable about wanting a man with whom I'm compatible. What's so unreasonable about wanting a man I'm attracted to? What's so unreasonable about wanting a man with career goals? If I can find those three things, I figure I'm in a very good position. I'm so scared we'll never meet. I ask God every time I pray to bring us to one another.

I hope one day I will have my little daughter, the daughter I've dreamed of so long. I hope she might be joined by a few others.

The long-term considerations are what they are, but the actual weekend of my birthday was unequivocally nice. Mom was away all week, and so on Friday night Thomas, his girlfriend Jewess, and I hosted my friend Redbeard, his girlfriend Lithuanian Girl, a classmate of mine, and Peruvian Girl for a night of white wine, meat-lover's pizza, raucous talk, and inappropriate jokes. Everyone got pleasantly tipsy and by about 12:30 in the morning everyone had left. I don't think it could have gone much better. In fact, it went weirdly well between Thomas and Redbeard, the latter turning out to be a metal fan of some seriousness, and the two of them chattered on about this band and that while we womenfolk exchanged looks of desperate boredom. Saturday was quiet and filled with reading, and then today came a perfectly suited late birthday present: Hillary Clinton announced that she is running for president.

The big reveal came via a campaign video released on social media, and marked in my view a major break from the approach she took when initiating her 2008 bid for the presidency. Then, she was seated at home at the mansion Whitehaven and boldly proclaimed she was "in it to win it." Now, she has affixed her seal to a two-and-a-quarter-minute campaign piece that doesn't show her until a minute and a half in. The focus is instead on a group of representative Americans: a Hispanic woman raising her young daughter; a black couple expecting their first child; a white retiree and a white factory worker; a gay couple preparing for marriage. What they all have in common is that they are all trying to build lives. Her promise to them, and her rationale for running, is that she will help.

Overall I thought the piece was savvy. She seems to be courting what she is intelligent enough to realize is the emerging demographic and cultural coalition in this country, and she's doing that not just by featuring them in her ads but by considering them in her policies; at one point she concedes that despite the gains of the Obama years, "the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top."

Even eight years ago that statement (and the cast beside which it was delivered) would have been considered controversial, maybe even radical, but we've moved into a different time. I don't trust her. I think she has at her core good motives that are sometimes compromised by her personal ambition. That being said, Secretary Clinton's propensity for maneuvering to wherever the votes are could be, in terms of practical outcomes, a very good thing provided she understands where in fact the votes are. It is the new coalition that will dominate. If she sees that, and molds herself to them--to us--then she'll have pursued a good agenda for impure motives and that, all things considered, should be seen as a win for everybody involved.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Seven Years

Today marks seven years since April 7, 2008, when on the advice of a friend I created a blog and published my first post. The intervening time has been a blessing to me in so many ways; I've enjoyed great personal change, have been able to chronicle that change in a medium that captured a magical time in my life, and, of course, have been privileged enough to meet all of you. In the last seven years things have shifted, as they're wont to do. Readers have come and gone, friendships have grown and withered, and acquaintances have blossomed into something more. The balance is clear: blogging has been a hugely positive part of my life, and without it the last seven years would not have had the richness they did.

So for those of you who don't know or would like to be reacquainted, my name is BB. I am a 26-year-old graduate student pursuing a master's degree in secondary social studies education, and am already plotting the move that follows graduation next May. I live in Mountain State with my mother Marie and siblings Thomas (age 19) and Pie (age 11). My brother Powell (age 25) lives with my father David, a destructive man whom my mother wisely divorced last fall. It's been a busy year. Let's recap.

April 2014: I turn 26 years old.

May 2014: After considerable debate, I choose to pursue a master's degree and begin fulfilling my undergraduate prerequisites for the program.

June 2014: I proceed through summer classes at Mountain University and plan for the fall.

July 2014: I score within the 87th percentile on the MAT, a general graduate admissions test, and am officially accepted into the master's of education program.

August 2014: I begin taking graduate courses at Mountain University.

September 2014: An expanding friend group lends itself to delightful opportunities for socializing, quelling my doubts that I might not be able to enjoy the same kind of broad interpersonal network I'd had at Major University as an undergraduate. My father David moves out of the home our family had shared together.

October 2014: My first teaching observation, at a middle school, is a source of great happiness to me. I decide to eventually pursue a second master's degree following the one I am currently earning.

November 2014: Thanksgiving is happier than it has been in a very long time. David's departure becomes permanent and I effectively disown him, severing a longstanding source of pain and conflict in my life.

December 2014: Our Family has its first Christmas without David. The day is peaceful. In the afternoon I drive to Decaying State and spend Christmas Day with my birth-mother, Anne, for the first and last time in my life. I conclude my first semester of graduate school with a 3.5 GPA.

January 2015: After more than a year of failed resolutions, I bear down on losing the significant amount of weight I gained following my suicide attempt. Major progress follows. I begin my second semester of graduate school. I determine that my second master's degree, as yet several years off, will be in Russian studies. On January 4, I am officially baptized into the Episcopal Church, following both my heart and a centuries-old family tradition.

February 2015: By the middle of the month, I have lost nearly twenty pounds and am hammering away at a challenging academic load.

March 2015: A spring visit to my birth-mother Anne opens my eyes to a sad truth: often, people don't change. My decision to disown her, less than a year after doing the same thing to my father, removes yet another major locus of discord and negativity.

The last year has been very good to me. This time in 2014 I wasn't even sure if I was going to enter the graduate program; now I'm halfway through and already learning Russian in anticipation of the second graduate program. I'm thinner than I was last April. I'm happier. I have more friends. I have better direction. I have God, and for the first time in far too long He has me.

Thank you, as always, for the pleasure of your company and the helpfulness of your insights. I will resolve to write a bit more here than I've been doing, and I will look forward with great excitement to recording whatever this year has to bring.

Friday, March 20, 2015

To Mother, Again

You are a cultivator of death
A farmer of pestilence
A bringer of disease
A teacher of ignorance

Your womb's laced with razors
Your breasts trailing bile
Each step you take
Leaves a pit like a grave

You have no right
You, who imperilled your children before you would provide for them
Who abandoned them before you would work for them
Who played with their lives for the sake of a drink

You have no right to anything
To anger
To resentment
To us

You took the forgiveness you did not earn
And made it a blade to fly back upon me
A thousand cuts salted with the knowledge
That you have never cared

But you misstepped
You thought my goodwill was unending; it has a sharp edge
You thought I was weak; I am stronger than you will ever dream of being
You thought you were like your mother; you're only half right

In cruelty, yes
In pettiness, yes
In intent, yes
But she at least was smart

She at least had her shining mind
She at least could play the game you think you've mastered
Her cuts were clever
Her lies were believable

But I am not you, and you are not her

It must be hard to be the dull brown between two points of light
Indignant with no dignity
Scheming with no cunning
Designs with no architect

Just stupid and mean
A mediocre monster

You will wail and moan at this
No one will care
After all, you never stop screaming
But you've only made me scream once

That night on the highway
It must have been a great high, to be worth that
The lives of your children
The ones you loved so much that you never tried to get them back

You've thrown away so many unearned blessings
That I suppose my love didn't seem much different
Thank you
It would have been such a waste to spend one more moment on a person who doesn't deserve me

My father ripped us away from you before you could inflict your damage
And now you never will
We escaped
You lost

So don your plastic pawn shop crown
Cloak your shoulders in cheap used fur
Reign over your flea market realm
With power that cannot touch us

Know I am beautiful
Know I am brilliant
Know I am strong
Know I am happy

And you can never change that

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


You gave me a chasm
You gave me a hole
You gave me a canyon
You took such a toll

You left only absence
Bequeathed only grief
You should have been building
Not playing the thief

You made me a phantom
You cut a vast wound
You made me a cripple
When you came unglued

You took my belief and
You robbed me of hope
You bloodied my brightness
You bound me in rope

I can't even hate you
I can't curse your breath
I only feel nothing
And only see death

Monday, March 16, 2015

An Open Letter to Millennials

It can be hard on the spirit to be a Millennial. We were born into the most prosperous civilization in the history of the world, into an era whose complacency was shattered one early fall morning when we were only children. 9/11 tore open the fog of our childhood, and in the ensuing years the traumas of the outside world rushed in one after the other: Iraq, Katrina, cultural decay, and in 2008 the shattering coup de grace of the financial crisis. We inherited doom and were blamed for being afraid. We inherited dislocation and were blamed for being unemployed. We inherited empty coffers and were blamed for being irresponsible. We inherited anomie and were blamed for being disengaged.

The real story of the Millennials, however, is not the one told by cynical Baby Boomers who have, with a staggering lack of self-awareness, bequeathed upon us such inspired monikers as “The Me, Me, Me Generation.” The loudest of these self-indulgent caws has come, predictably, from those who in their own day were the most ardent hedonists, the most avid consumers of LSD. My message to my fellow Millennials? Ignore those people. They truly are, in so many senses of the word, worthless.

What I want to tell you is something that you no doubt know but maybe, amidst the barrage of negative press, forgot: we are great, and we will save this country.

Look at what we’ve done. We spawned some of the most talented musicians, some of the profoundest art, in the history of America. We invented social media and, before most of us were yet twenty-five, changed the way in which the entire human species communicated. We blazed a path at the forefront of technology and even now are pioneering the alternative energy methods that will define our nation’s economy in the coming decades. We rose in the face of a financial catastrophe and elected a president whose skin color was unimportant to us. We rejected the bigotry of countless generations before us and insisted upon treating each other as equals, regardless of the differences that we always knew were trivial. We stand, 100 million strong, and to the face of our parents’ prejudice raise an insurmountable hand. We refuse to countenance their ignorance. We insist that it will die with them.

The people who call us degenerate are wrong. They, after all, took upon themselves the task of destroying the social contract their parents bequeathed to them, and they exhibited the dissipation shown by so many who have inherited something without having to work for it. We will not make the same mistake. We have seen what happens when the levers of power are held by a party who believe certain classes of us to be lower than others, who believe it is acceptable to abandon entire subsets of our country in the economic wilderness. They thought they would somehow benefit from this. We saw that a wound to any of us was a wound to all of us, and it is this quality, more than any other, that sets us apart from the scornful generation who heckled us as selfish even as they grew fat on others’ suffering.

We are great not because we refused to serve in a war, not because we pushed the limits of psychedelic drugs, not because we pretended to like bad music or because we once used too much hairspray. We are great because we refuse to embrace a philosophy that does not lift every American. We are great because we accept nothing less than equality. We are great because we will make a country in which everyone matters and everyone has a chance.

We are great because we are builders.

And one day the things we’ve built will tower into the sky, casting a shadow so huge that the foolish anger of earlier days is swallowed up without a whisper. One day our children will live in a nation where every single citizen has healthcare, where every working person can afford to clothe and feed themselves, where a university education is open to everyone who wants it, where dignity is not reserved to the wealthy and opportunity is not foreclosed to anyone. One day our descendants will survey the abundance and concord around them, will look up to our ancient faces, and will say, “You gave us this.” One day our grandchildren will be amazed that an entire political party took up the task of discriminating against gays and women. One day they will shake their heads and think, “I can’t believe it was once like that.”

We will leave to our sons and daughters a better world than the one we were left. We are a generation of volunteers, a generation of voters and organizers and educators and engineers. Let the middle-aged continue to call us down even as we repair the damage they inflicted on this country. Our society is now engaged in a temporary debate about whether bigotry should trump equality, whether colossal wealth for a few should preempt prosperity for all. The debate will not last long. And when the Republicans and their illiterate ilk draw against us a sword of fear and ignorance, they will find that aluminum breaks upon granite.

They are a stick; we are a mountain. Like a mountain we will stand, hard and quiet and huge and immoveable, enduring one meaningless storm after another as we grow ever higher. We will create the country we should have had, and then we will teach those who come after us not to be hoodwinked as our own parents were. There are no shortcuts. Imposing poverty won’t create riches. Imposing discrimination won’t confer privilege. In the end, we all rise or we all fall, together.

So keep at it, Millennials. It’s ours for the making.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Seizing What You Want

Perhaps more than other people, I understand with stark perception the reality of powerlessness; my life has been defined, to a significant degree, by major traumas that were beyond my control. But because I've had the experience of falling under shattering blows and then devising ways to recover from them, I also understand, more than other people, the power a person can wield if he chooses to.  And what's funny is that often those who have been most victimized show the greatest facility for utilizing the resources available to them, however scarce those resources might be. Engineering a total reconstruction, after all, requires one to summon a bit of creativity.

At two distinct points in my life, total collapse was imposed upon me from outside forces and I was obliged to figure a plan for building myself back up. On both occasions, catastrophic bottoming-out (which in the most recent instance resulted in my actual death) was immediately followed by roaring recoveries whose achievements far surpassed what had gone before the crises. We can do extraordinary things if we decide to.

To that end, I've been busy. I've been busy knocking the hell out of some graduate-level writing assignments, busy fulfilling student-teaching requirements, busy learning Russian vocabulary and arranging Russian language lessons to commence this summer, busy enjoying a flowering social life in this new community, and busy losing--as of this morning--eighteen pounds. I never forget what they did, but the people who hurt me have a way of feeling very far away these days. I suppose it's because I'm on my way.

That way has become a lot clearer in the last couple of months. I nixed the option of getting my second master's degree in the history of the Southern U.S., opting instead to pursue either Russian studies or Russian history, the job market depending. I'll not be doing that right away, mind you; I'm living at home while I obtain my first master's degree in secondary social studies education, and though my mother is a very pleasant woman to reside with I don't much favor the notion of imposing upon her until I'm thirty-two. I'll obtain my current degree in about a year's time (May 2016) and will then commence teaching at the high school level, obtaining my second master's degree while working. This path has a couple of advantages. For one thing, it will allow me to stand on my own feet financially and manage what is sure to be a demanding work-load in my own home and by my own rules. For another, it will provide me the time to acquire Russian language skills, which are a prerequisite to the program I wish to pursue. In my first year of teaching, when I'm adjusting to a new career and locale, I won't bother with any master's work, but I will be sure to take intensive Russian language courses for which I'll build the foundation starting this summer. My goal, then, is to begin the second master's program in three to five years, no later, ideally, than my second year of teaching.

And then what?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, analyst jobs are quite lucrative and securing one would amply reward my study. Were I to encounter difficulty on that front, I'd still have teaching, and I'd also have a master's degree in Russian history. Don't tell any Defense Department contractors, but I'd honestly do that just for the fun of it, so even the possibility of a rewarding career in the field is more than enough motivation. The eventual goal, quite a ways down the road, is to, either after serving as an analyst for a number of years or after teaching for a while, obtain my PhD in the subject and teach it at the university level. And I am so damn excited about this.

Every time I crack open my Russian language workbook or attend Russian history lecture, I'm having a total blast. It's funny how fate works, isn't it? I've loved Russia since I was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old, then drifted away from it for a while in my undergrad years only to return to the topic and make it the centerpiece of my career.

"If you love Russia, stick with Russia," one of my wiser professors told me earlier this semester. "I've had a deep interest in geography since I was a boy, and it led me to a wonderful career. Stick with Russia."

When God hands you a jewel, wear it proudly.

In the meantime, I have to go. I stayed after school today to catch a talk on the mid-18th century crisis of the British Empire in North America, and it's starting in about twenty minutes. After that, it's back to my house and a slumber party with Pie. She's eleven now, by the way, and with our mother headed out of town it's going to be just the two of us tonight. We're going out for sushi and then I'm going to bribe her into watching a Disney classic or two.

I'd like all of you to know that I'm not going anywhere. I'm not able to write as frequently as I did before--grad school will do that--but I am and always have been in it for the long haul. I've so valued the experiences I've had here in the last seven years. I hope you have, too.