Friday, October 16, 2015

Into the Goldlands

My siblings and I have this joke that one of the hardest questions any of us has to answer is, "Where are you from?"

Take your pick: Native City, Dirty Town, Beautiful Town, Central City, the Goldlands, Mountain Town. The list goes on. On balance, however, and especially in light of my recent discovery that my ancestors lived in the region for upwards of three centuries, I have decided that Southern State is, if not quite where I'm from, then certainly the closest I have to being from, well, anywhere. It was where I learned to drive. It was where I had my first kiss. It was where I graduated from high school, went to college, came out of the closet, and made my closest and most enduring friends. It was where I first came to believe in myself. A week ago, as I drove over the mountains and into the glory of a Southern State autumn, I was reminded why I called it home. I swear the sun shone a little bit brighter there.

As I advanced further into the Goldlands, closer to the heart where Major University lay, the physical and cultural landscapes began to change; the leaves grew bolder, the roads wider, and the mountains and fields of the lands to the west were replaced by the silver and white glitter of urban prosperity rising from the cinnamon hills. An unbroken wave of white faces speaking lilting English gave way to the hues of the entire world, to tongues from all corners of the planet. I wrapped up my business early and swung by a Korean grocery store to buy myself some seaweed.

"Hey, man," I said as Filipino Guy's sleepy voice filtered through my phone. "Listen, I got here like two hours early and so I'm already done with everything. Do you want to get lunch now?"

"Sure," he replied. "I mean, I was sleeping while you were being productive, but let me get a quick shower and I'll be right over."

The Goldlands has long been a place where I've found renewal, resources, innovation, and the means to push back borders, and so it was fitting that this was the region I went to initiate what could be a radical shift in professional direction. I've not quit the day job yet, though, and will fill you in on this potential avenue as I learn more.

"I'm sure you did well," Filipino Guy said as we sat down at a local Korean restaurant not far from where we'd gone to university. "I took the test a few years back and passed, and you know way more about all the political and history stuff than I do."

I took a sip of my soda.

"Well, if you can do it..."

I shot him a mischievous grin and he laughed in response.

"Very true, sir."

Filipino Guy is an old college friend, two years my senior, whom I met my very first week at university. I was reminded of this when discussion turned to the other members of our extended friend group, who now live as far afield as Knoxville and Texas, Washington and New York, and to many of whom neither of us has spoken in years.

"That's how it is after college, though," he mused. "People lose touch, people have things going on. It's not personal. I think it's nice to be able to see people every few years and be okay with that."

"I think it's hysterical that we're still friends after all these years. And it was so random how we met."

"That comm. class," he said.

Our eyes met over steaming soup and fried chicken, and for a moment we both felt a sudden rush of sorrow; nine years ago in the waning summer of 2006, he was a boy of twenty and I one of eighteen. In the decade that's followed, we've both changed in terms of values and direction, have both endured dark periods that in his case consisted of mean-spirited atheism and in mine of a manic spiral to suicide. Both of us are happy with different aspects of our lives, and both of us have successfully weathered our storms. But in light of those storms, the summer of youth when we first met seemed so terribly far away.

"We're getting older," he said.

"I don't know," I countered. "I think we both look pretty damn good for pushing thirty."

"Yeah," he said, eyes gleaming. "And you're white. You should be totally falling apart by now."

I laughed and surveyed his vigorous frame and the smooth, handsome face that continues to attract appreciate stares from the young women of the Goldlands.

"You're doing about as well as one would expect for an Asian."

"I am," he agreed, with a sip of his drink. "But I see it in certain ways. My hair is starting to thin."

I waved him off.

"It's probably just how you're styling it."

"Yours, on the other hand," he said, taking a handful of the long blonde hair that, since it was recently cut to just below my shoulders, is now soft and absurdly thick. "Remains luxuriant. You always knew how to turn me on."

I slapped my (very straight) friend's hand away and assured him once more. "We both have nice hair. You're as irresistible as ever."

But when we paid our bill and walked to the parking lot to say goodbye, I looked up at him and saw in the sunlight what the dim bulbs inside had concealed; across the whole of his head, the tiniest patches of scalp were visible in between spikes of black hair. The loss was evenly spread and I wouldn't have noticed it had I not known him for so long, but he was right.

And then something really hit me: I am twenty-seven years old. Filipino Guy is twenty-nine. Somewhere along the way, the flow of time to which at eighteen and twenty we imagined ourselves immune kept on going, and then one day we woke up to see the difference that had accumulated while we weren't paying attention. We're young still--but not youths. He's earning a master's degree to move from his current engineering job to one that offers more prestige and pay. I'll be either teaching or doing more media-related work in a year's time and will at last be able to stand on my own two feet financially. Somehow we've started turning into honest-to-goodness adults.

There's a little sadness to that, but far more happiness on balance. I find myself wondering how our friendship, and my friendships with others, will evolve as still more years pass.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer Yields to Autumn

It hasn't happened yet. Not really. But in spirit, summer passed away this morning and yielded to cold winds that are as yet metaphorical. August 24 marked, after all, the start of the school year.

This has always been a season replete with deeper meaning for me. Fall has been the time when I've seen not death and decay but magic blooming from scarlet trees, winter the time when I've seen not desolation but white-cloaked sleep, a welcome occasion to regroup from the stresses of life. A time somehow apart from time. When the skies fade to grey and the air bites with frost, I make my home a fortress and survey the world from atop its battlements. Strange as it seems, those months of withdrawal are always when I feel richest and most complete, most disconnected from the rest of humanity but most able to let select facets of it in more deeply. It might have something to do with the fact that my personal deliverance, when I was thirteen, came in the dead of winter. It might be genetic memory (I am, after all, a Swede by extraction). It might be some primeval vestige left over from a happy childhood day long forgotten. Whatever it is, I've been this way as long as I can remember.

So the start of the colder months is something I welcome. Winter is my time to plan and regenerate. In the summers I execute, but many of the great ideas come when I'm holed away.

Today is, of course, August 24, a date to which history attaches great significance. It was on this day in AD 410, 1,605 years ago, that Rome fell for the first time in eight centuries to an enemy army. The empire had been weakening for some time, of course, and its decay was no secret to contemporaries, but August 24 shrieked to a shocked world that one era had died and another begun. Rome, the Eternal City, was eternal no more. The greatest power of the world, the queen of Europe, was merely another city to be sacked, and as such was neither a great power nor a queen after a millennium of being both. What followed, sixty-six years later, was confirmation of what the flames of August had first proclaimed: Romulus Augustulus, the last ruler of the Western Empire, abdicated his throne on September 4, AD 476, and the pathetic fiction of Roman hegemony fell alongside the Roman state itself.

Those two dates, August 24 and September 4, marked the end of the long Roman summer and the beginning of the desolate winter known as the Dark Ages, in whose howling blizzards would perish generation after generation in blackness. The impermeable night was broken only a thousand years later, in 1453, with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. That event is taken by historians to delineate the commencement of the Renaissance--on May 29. Glorious rebirth. Spring.

Just now, though, the days grow shorter and the afternoon skies slowly shift from periwinkle to navy. And with the metamorphosis from summer to fall comes another that is long overdue: my name. You know me and will always know me as BB, first BlackenedBoy then BrightenedBoy (it can be argued that 19-year-old BB should have chosen a pseudonym that would age better), but the rest of the world has known me these last twenty-seven years by the name my father selected in 1987. A little-known fact is that my mother Anne, though woefully inadequate by all other measures, had the good sense to pick for me a name from Antiquity.

"I wanted to name you Your-Soon-to-Be-Name, after this Roman senator [who was by and large a horrific person but had a single redeeming quality I can't reveal without giving away his identity], but your father overruled me. He heard Your Current Name on a sitcom that was popular back in the '80s."

That's right. Anne wished to give me a name that had lasted for several millennia. David chose one that was in vogue for several months. This has been common knowledge for some time, and David freely admits the facts of the situation while completely missing the horrible light in which they paint him. No matter. I've always been able to see he's an idiot, even if he hasn't.

So on August 21, I went to the courthouse in my locality and filed the paperwork that, in about a month's time, will result in my name being legally changed to what my mother intended all those years ago.

"My father has made so many bad decisions, many of them involving me, and I just thought, 'Why should his stupidity mark me for the rest of my life?'"

"No, you're right," said Black Dress Girl, who also legally changed her name for similar reasons and after an extended period of contemplation. "It's your life. It should be the way you want it to be. Your father was always trying to make you into something you weren't."

And damn it, Anne may be a sociopathic narcissist with a penchant for outrageous lying and a slim grip on reality, but she really nailed it with that name. It just fits me to a tee. So while the fact that my mother intended this for me legitimizes the whole business, in a very real way the decision has nothing to do with her. She picked the name, but doesn't define it. She chose it, but doesn't own it. It was just always meant to be.

This will be my last fall semester--as a student--for several years, until about 2020 or so, when I am tentatively slated to begin my second master's degree, that one in Russian studies. In less than a year I will, at long last, be gone from this house, starting new under the name that should always have been mine and, finally, as my own person. No David or Marie attached. No one else's money to keep me afloat or house to keep me warm. Just me. Just BB. And hopefully, after a while, I'll have a partner to share that with. Then it'll be just us.

For now, though, I simply await the winds of fall, and give thanks for whatever God brings with them.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Nights

The nights are the worst
When doubt and terror tiptoe in equal measure
Alighting their razored feet upon the grooves of my ripped soul

When there rises a wall so high and so treacherous
I'm sure neither of us can breach it
Me to reach your love
You to show me a way out of the blackness

The nights are the worst
When the unwept tears carry searing questions:
How did this happen? How does a person go this wrong? Can you ever come back into sunlight after you dive into a serpent's throat?

The nights are the worst
When my heart quakes with the fear that forgotten terrors
Are lurking in the corners of my mind
Just hidden by the shadows of the ones I can remember

Of sickness and pain
Inadequacy and fear
Blood on white fingers
A child who carried the blame for grown-up evils

The hoarse voice that called me that flaming word
That laughed at my tears
The leather crack that made my eight-year-old skin scream
The spit that bathed my little boy face in hatred

The wall that knocked more air out of me than his hands
Anger welting on my back
Dignity dripping down my leg
A message festering in my mind

Wails of anguish
Then and now
The horror that shrieks with them

Unloved once, so unloved forever
Not right once, so not right forever
A ghost once, so a phantom all these dragging years
Somehow always half a person

Somehow always unable to reach you across that awful gulf

I want to give all of me to you
And take all of you in me
But I never learned how to do that
I only learned how not to

I dream of you in moments
Of passion I can't return
Of solace in arms
I'll never let hold me

The nights are the worst
When the only thing that fills me is all I never got to be
And grief at what I'll never become

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