Monday, November 11, 2013

Actually, I'm Very Lucky

This essay was written to a specific person in my life. Still, I think it's relevant to a lot of the people who read Shaping Clay. I'm posting it instead of sending it because I want you all to know how much I appreciate you, whether you're an autism parent who advocates for your child's equal rights, an activist in your own right, or simply a reader who is interested in social justice. The tl;dr on this essay is that I'm not lucky because of my life, I'm lucky because of all of you.

So I heard that you think I'm a loser. That's pretty funny to me, because I think I'm winning the game of life on hard mode. After all, I'm thirty years old with two novels published. I'm a home owner, my partner and I have stayed together through over a dozen life-threatening medical emergencies (hers) and a series of family falling-outs (mine), and I've managed to repair a decade-long rift between my mother and myself. In fact, I'm closer to my mom than I am to any member of my family, and considering the long history of mutually savage actions that have gone down between the two of us, that's quite the victory.

While I don't have kids of my own, I have had the wonderful opportunity to mentor two of my little cousins, to talk to them about growing up and what it is to be a man, and to help them to avoid the peer pressure that so often leads good boys to adopt misogynist attitudes and postures during the time (puberty) when they are experiencing the most chaos and change in their bodies. I have been very lucky, indeed, to have any two kids look up to me. Even if they aren't mine. And I've been privileged to watch both of them become better people, so I know that even if my influence on their lives is just a small one, I still got to contribute to that.

I'm lucky, too, that after receiving my autism diagnosis, I found a supportive online community where I could make real friends with people like myself. Real friends. Not work friends. Not partners that keep me happy because their financial future is entwined with mine. Not a spouse who keeps her mouth shut because it's easier not to provoke my anger and, besides, I'll go on shift for forty hours soon.

Friends. People who support me, and who I support. Not because they pay me or because I have convinced them that they owe me some kind of blood loyalty. No, these people support me because they appreciate the message in my work, and when I support them, it's for the same reasons.

I'm also lucky to be queer. Not gay. Not bisexual. Queer. I'm lucky because my fluid, hard-to-pin-down sexuality has made one of the most important and rewarding aspects of my life into an ongoing treasure hunt for rewarding experiences and personal understanding. I'm lucky to have an intensely emotional attitude toward sex too, one that causes each new development in my understanding of myself to unlock feelings and textures of feelings that I might not have ever known I could access if I did not allow myself to be honest about these desires.

Similarly, I'm happy to be Neuroqueer. Not all of us (Autistics) are. Some of us choose to attempt to assimilate. Some of us pass in public and only trot out our neuroqueerness when we're alone. Not me. I'm very lucky to have a network of personal and professional contacts who value my abilities and talents for what they are, and who are open to my differences, allowing my neuroqueerness to flourish so that I can focus my professional life on being good at what I do, not on fitting in. I'm lucky that my brand of neuroqueering involves not having a huge investment in what other people with other lifestyles think about me. That means that I can have values in my life that revolve around building rewarding relationships with others, and not around maintaining an image.

Even though it's one of the biggest difficulties I face right now, I have to say that I even feel lucky to have an unconventional approach to gender. It's given me perspective about the kinds of insults and pressures that my family members with more conventional gender attitudes face, and it's done it while sparing me a lot of the psychological barriers that they face. Sure, it has its costs, but like my other two brands of queerness, being genderqueer has allowed me to access modes of existence that gives my life and my experience a unique flavor, one that sets me apart.

It's true I don't have any money most of the time, but I do have a nice, dependable car that's fuel efficient and that I can afford to keep in good repair. And there's the condo. Like I said, I'm a home owner. I don't have a boat on Lake Michigan like you do, and I don't have a collection of overpriced European cars that I keep in a barn. I can't afford to live recklessly on an overpriced piece of land in a county that looks like a movie set, so I don't have the privilege of talking down to my neighbors and trying to make the local cops feel small when they pull me over. That's probably why you think I'm a loser.

I just think I'm playing a different game. After all, I've won at mentoring younger members of my family. When you were in a position to do that to me, you chose to berate me, wag your finger in my face, and then lock me out of the house without a coat on. On Christmas Eve. Which was also my seventeenth birthday. I also meet D's emotional outbursts with compassion and understanding, and I know not to pursue him or to judge his behavior because he is learning to deal with very complex emotions that he accesses in ways that are not immediately obvious to others. I host him in my home with love and with tolerance. I don't accuse him of acting out and hide him from other children, and I don't tell his mother that she's doing a piss poor job with him. Nor do I tell the other kids in our family that he's a bad influence.

Also, I speak to my mother with respect as an equal. I might tell her that some of her ideas are wrong, but I explain why. I don't call her an idiot or berate her for trying to do for me. If she's being over-exuberant in her attempts to please me, I explain that I'm there to see her, not to be served hand and foot. I don't yell at her to stop or call her names.

I also don't make plans to sell her house out from under her so that she has to move in with me and become an unpaid maid and baby-sitter. Of course, I don't have kids or a large house, so I don't need my mother to move in with me and wait on me hand and foot. I'd like to think, though, that even if I did have kids in the house that I wouldn't need my mother to spend her golden years serving me instead of enjoying her life. I might be wrong, though. I mean, I'm still picturing a future where, even though I have kids, my wife doesn't hate me and my kids aren't psychologically stunted because they haven't watched for years as I belittle their mother in front of them.

Maybe, if I'd chased my partner out of my life by making myself unbearable and occasionally putting my hands around her neck to make a point, maybe I'd need my mother then. Maybe I wouldn't have a chance in hell of convincing a judge that I was capable of taking care of two kids without her. I definitely wouldn't be able to avoid cutting back my hours at work without her, so I might resort to manipulating her into being dependent on me so that I could use her presence in my life to deprive my partner of our children, even though I would only be doing it to look like the more capable parent to outsiders.

But for all of that to happen, I'd have to be a substantially different person. And that person looks like a loser to me. It could be worse, though. I mean, if I was that kind of misogynistic, manipulative loser, at least I'd have my profession. After all, I chose a career that I could find rewarding regardless of the level of economic success it allowed me to attain. I relax by going to work, and even if I occasionally bristle over having to spend weekends grading, it's not like I only did this for the money and the time off. Even if I'm stuck working part-time and I don't get to call myself a full professor, I get to see young adults grow and come into their own, and when I present my writing and research at national conferences, no one knows or cares that my affiliation isn't as prestigious as theirs. They're too busy focusing on the content of my work.

I mean, that still makes me pretty lucky. I'd still have all of that, even if my family life had gone to shit because of my own choices. I could be one of those guys who is hated by everyone in his office and barely tolerated by his colleagues. I could be forced to measure my success at my job solely by the number of ways I could find to over-bill Medicare. I could have my whole sense of self-worth wrapped up in the profitability of a business that should be a service. I could try to convince myself that I deserve to bankrupt families to afford my boat, and that my support of a bloated and parasitic insurance industry that serves only to block certain kinds of people from accessing lifesaving health care is necessary.

I could find myself alone at night, when the kids aren't in my big house, trying to talk myself into the idea that I was the good guy, because my skills and responsibilities are such that I deserve to live better than 99% of the rest of the country, even if I have to do it by perpetuating a system that causes widespread corruption and financial waste, and that has blocked economic growth in other sectors for decades.

After all, I'd deserve it. I would have worked hard to arrive at that position. The fact that I control both the supply and demand for my own services because I get to decide exactly what my clients/customers/patients need and how much to charge for it--that shouldn't distract me from my feeling of victory. After all, I've succeeded at providing something that people can't live without in a very competitive market, and the fact that I can manipulate supply, demand, and cost to my own benefit doesn't mean that I had to work any less hard. I'd be an entrepreneur, or so I'd think.

I could, because of this attitude and my family problems, develop a sense of my own place in the world that is so detached from the actual impact my actions have on other people that I failed to notice when my superior advice to others stopped being advice and started being a weak and mostly-blusterous attempt to justify my continued existence. I could double-down on that weakness with anger, supposing that everyone who criticizes me is only seeking to make me lose face in front of my peers. I could wind up with the devastatingly self-defeating task of belittling people until they stopped calling me an asshole for belittling people.

I could be the kind of person who corners his mentally ill sister and forces her to listen to a diatribe about what losers her children are and why it's all her fault. I could be so unselfconscious that I do it while the spouse I spent years abusing emotionally and physically was doing everything she could to save my children from me. I could revel in the superiority that I feel for being able to make an emotionally vulnerable person who has suffered a lifetime of abuse inadequate in her own eyes.

In short, I'm lucky to be a loser, because I could have wound up as another sociopathic angry white asshole that no one will mourn. Thank you for pointing that out to me.