It was a challenge to come up with the right Christmas present last year for my wife, Andi. We were a month into our separation and I definitely couldn’t half-ass it. Half-assing it through the marriage is what got me in this horrible situation. I got her a LSAT study book (which she used) and a trip to Paris (which she didn’t use). So, a year later, I really wanted to show up. It was time to center her instead of my idea of her. We’re back under the same roof, but still separated. I want her to know I’ve learned something this year.
There are always “things” we want. (If I don’t get The Beatles Get Back DVD from Santa, I’m buying it myself.) But things are transitory. They matter and then they don’t. What if there was a gift that was both lasting and reflected a partner who pays attention? A gift that recognizes the personhood of the recipient, not just their role as a gift receiver.
One of the great works I read in grad school was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). If the home is a metaphor for society, it’s the man’s house. Rooms for women are assigned specific gendered tasks; the kitchen, the laundry room, the nursery, the sewing room. Men get their den to just exist in. What is women’s equivalent of the man cave? Woolf argued if women are to write fiction, they need a room of their own. If they want to live outside the constraints of their proscribed roles, they must have a safe space inside their own homes to explore their options. Like men do every day.
I bought my house in 1999 and turned every room into my own. That included a room for my vinyl collection and a separate room for my CDs. When Andi moved in in 2013, we had to shoehorn her life into my space. My closet for her clothes. My kitchen drawers for her pans. My walls for her paintings. She was a lodger in Randyland. How could she ever feel like she truly belonged here?
So that could be my gift; a room of her own. Andi plans on going to law school in the fall and will need a study space, or just a “be” space. My CD room was upstairs with big east-facing windows. It was the perfect candidate to be de-Randified and transformed into a comfy study. I had to build shelves in another room to store my thousands of CD. It had to be all her room, no Blazak artifacts. Since it was upstairs, I could work on in while she was at work or “out,” without her knowing what I was up to.
So I got to work, painting, fixing cracks in the wall, finding a desk and a comfy reading chair, and framing the book cover of Woolf’s classic for the wall. Cozy helped too, contributing a plant and a framed picture of her and her mother. Oh, and a white furry rug she found at IKEA. A bottle of mescal and a note in the desk and the job was done. I purposely under-decorated. It would defeat the entire idea if I filled her room with my ideas. She can create the space in her image.
I wrapped a copy of A Room of One’s Own (sans cover) after inscribing in it, “The rest of this gift is upstairs,” and placed it under the tree. I put Cozy to bed (after watching Home Alone) and hoped she’d be home in time to open presents in the morning.
Like Santa, Andi arrived in the wee hours and we opened presents. Cozy was most excited about the Minecraft Lego set. (Mr. Claus went through the ringer for that one.) Andi’s present for me was a Joni Mitchell biography. The last gift was her Woolf book and then Cozy and I led her upstairs to see the room I’ve been working on for several weeks.
I think she liked it. “It’s probably the most thoughtful gift you’ve ever given me,” she said. I want her to have her space in this male owned house. I want her to want to stay.
Everything changed on September 26, 2012 at 10:15 AM (maybe 10:17, she was late). But first, the backstory. And it’s messy.
My forties were emotionally confusing. I had successfully risen up the academic ranks to a tenured full professor position but my love life was always in turmoil. I hadn’t yet connected the abuse I experienced as a child to the bad patterns I had perfected in adulthood. And work and romance tended to overlap. Pew research reports that most Americans meet their spouses at work, and I had habit of dating former students (with the emphasis on “former.”) While the university had no policy against relationships among faculty and university students, that line mattered to me. After grades were turned in, two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want. It never was an issue, nor should it have been. There were several respected professors who were married to former students. Let love rule.
About a dozen years ago, I had a brief relationship with a former student that started off fun but, as new relationships sometimes do, quickly hit a dead end. It was clear that not only were we not a good match, there were red flags popping up all over the place. (The university would later deem this woman “unstable.”) I tried to end it amicably but she was not having any of it and went into full Glenn Close/Fatal Attraction mode. She found allies in the administration to champion her cause. They’d drag me into regular administrative tribunals and lecture me about “power dynamics.” (One of these administrators was having a “romantic, amorous, and/or sexual” relationship the administrator who had appointed her to her six-figure job.) I hired a lawyer who shut it all down and I recorded her confession that she made all her accusations up. Hoping to expedite my return to normalcy, I offered to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t date anyone who was enrolled at the university. Although I did briefly date an administrator after that. Because irony won’t be lost on me.
September 24, 2012 was the first day of the 2012-2013 school year and I had asked to teach a Sociology 101 class that started on Monday mornings. I wanted to be the first professor a fresh batch of college students would encounter. So I put a lot of work into that first class. It was a true performance, a sermon on the salvation of critical thinking. There’s always a few students who blow off the first class because they think nothing important happens on Day 1, and it always annoys me because everything important happens on Day 1. I make note of their absence and develop a grudge. One of those absentees was named Andrea Barrios.
So before she walked in late on Wednesday, I already had a bias against Ms. Barrios. Then she walked through the door. I’m not being overly dramatic when I say it felt like being struck by a bolt of lightning. It was an out-of-body experience. (She has told me of a similar experience.) My first clear thought was, “Oh no, universe, do not put this woman in front of me. I signed a contract!” as she sat in the front row and smiled. I was on the tail end of a two year relationship with a wonderful woman that was sputtering because I didn’t have a basic understanding of how to be in a relationship. But I was a good professor and stayed perfectly professional the entire term (while my teaching assistant routinely hit on Andrea). I stayed focused, as hard as that was.
At the end of the term, I posted on Facebook that I was going to see local singer Storm Large at dark club to celebrate the end of the quarter. It was a rainy December night and I was sitting by myself at the end of the bar when Andrea walked in. Of course I was thrilled to see her. She was probably the smartest person in a class of a hundred students and she radiated. She bought me a shot of tequila and said we should hang out sometime. I told her I didn’t date students. She bought me another shot of tequila and we ended up making out at the bar.
A mature man would have stopped right there. I began building my career as sociology professor at 17 as a freshman in college. It didn’t make a lot of sense to risk it over a woman in her twenties, as fascinating as she may be. I invited her to dinner the next night so I could explain the situation, that I had signed a contract with the university and if I dated her I could lose my job. “Maybe nobody will find out,” she said. That’s all I heard. I was already head over heals in love. I just wanted to be near her. She tried to get into another school to avoid the conflict but that didn’t happen. We were two adults who just wanted to be together. Two years later we were married with a baby.
But it wasn’t easy for her. I was only just starting to figure my shit out. The first lesson was how I tended to keep old relationships on the back burner in case the current relationship went south (a product of deep abandonment fears). I learned that only burned the person I was with and I almost lost Andrea. Fortunately, it was a surprisingly easy fix. So many of my other issues, wrapped in my narcissistic tendencies, made her feel invisible. But, as a tenured professor, I represented the stability she craved. Then all that changed.
This is the part of the story that involves a psychotic inmate in an Oregon prison. (“Psychotic” isn’t hyperbole. It’s in his medical records.) He was a “former” racist skinhead who I had worked with before his incarceration. He had decided, for some stupid reason, that I had aggrieved him. He made it his personal mission to destroy me and found allies in the university who were endlessly annoyed by my role as a faculty union agitator. I was dragged back in before the administrative mob, with our daughter in her baby carrier, and asked me if my wife was a university student. “Yeah,” I said, “She’s taking an online Women’s Studies class.” That was it. They had me. I was toast.
My long career was successfully destroyed, not by a nazi skinhead, but my failure to make better choices. I could blame Glenn Close girl, psychotic skinhead, or a university administrator who was banging her boss, but it all came down to bad decisions I made over the course of years. I just wasn’t ready to accept that fact.
Who was I without my career? Certainly not the stable provider Andi and our baby needed. My issues began to cascade. I thought I was one of the good guys, but I centered my anger, creating less and less room for her in the relationship. To her credit, she not only finished her undergraduate work but earned a Master’s Degree and began teaching her own classes. All while I tried to pick up the pieces of my life and figure out how the hell to be a good father and husband.
There are numerous details but suffice it to say she told me in very clear terms what she needed but I was so wrapped up in my pain and anger that I repeatedly failed to deliver. It was when things were at their worst, that I started remembering the experiences of early sexual abuse. But it’s not like one has a realization that leads to an immediate change, “Oh, I was abused. Now I can stop being a self-centered prick.” I still had a ways to fall before I hit the bottom. And that happened on last New Year’s Eve when Andi told me she was in love with someone else. The floor opened up and I was ready to cease to exist. I felt beyond repair. Beyond redemption. There was nowhere to go but oblivion.
After that, as I have written much about, I found a wonderful therapist who helped me not only connect the dots from my trauma to my behavior, but who gave me practical tools to start to change the patterns. My trip to Ukraine to resettle refugees this past spring encouraged me to be a source of healing instead of pain. And Andi’s patience helped me to see how childish my behavior tended to be. I’ve learned that love is more than a feeling but behavior in the small moments; a comforting look, a curious question, a snarky text not sent.
I’m marking this ten year point for two reasons. First, that psychotic skinhead is out of prison and still threatening me. I need a public record of my journey. But the main reason is that this ten year effort to deconstruct myself and build a better version of me may not be enough to be Husband 2.0 to Andi, but it’s been worth the attempt. We all can repair harm and fix ourselves to reduce harm to the people we love. I’m proud of who I am becoming.
There’s so much going on in the world. The Earth is literally on fire. It’s a nice distraction from my personal problems. I can doom-scroll through some GoPro footage from the battlefields of Ukraine or watch endless hours of commentary on the January 6th hearings. I used to drink through the rough patches. Now I just mainline the outside world.
As a Pisces, I tend to be overdramatic. Things aren’t that bad. Just the summer doldrums of separation. I’ve been trying to learn more about co-dependent relationships and, man, did I have one. I’m not 100% sure that learning about it makes you any less co-dependent, or will help Andi end up back under the same roof, but it sure shines a light and why we were stuck and not making any progress. She was the fixer and I was he who perpetually needed be fixed.
I’ve been having some pretty good conversations about the topic with my therapist. Knowing I’m a Pisces, she’s liberal with the diagrams. She drew two overlapping equal sized circles on a piece of paper and explained that in a healthy relationship two people take up equal space and they overlap in the space of their relationship but they have a larger part of themselves that’s not defined by the relationship. And they can both bring in things to share in the overlap or keep them as part of themselves.
In a co-dependent relationship, one person is a bigger circle that completely envelopes the other circle. That enveloped person has a) a smaller space, b) has no self outside the relationship and c) is always struggling against the confines of the bigger circle. That was us. Even though I encouraged her life outside of our relationship (she got a master’s degree and was an elected officer in her union without my help), when we were together, I did a pretty good job of swallowing her back into what I was jokingly referred to as “Randyland” (a term she understandably loathed). Just like how a person of color is forced to define themselves in relation to “whiteland,” her existence was shaped by our relationship instead of the other way around.
My therapist asked me to conjure up a romantic image of us and I remembered our first trip to Andi’s home town of Morelia, Mexico in 2013. Instead of me being the tour guide in Portland, she led me through her beautiful city, holding my hand. I imagined myself as a balloon safely in her grasp, seeing the world through her eyes. But it was just a flip of our co-dependent dynamic. Now I was the small circle, encompassed by her. As wonderful as it felt, it still wasn’t balanced.
Then she asked me to remember another romantic moment that seemed more balanced and I immediately flashed to our trip to Oslo, Norway in 2018, a city that was new to both us. I was returning from a day at a conference and Andi was coming to find me because she had discovered the most amazing record store on earth and when we ran into each other on the sidewalk, we were those perfectly equal interlocking circles.
The reality is that we had those moments (our first week in a youth hostel on Isla Mujeres with sand in the bed and Macklemore playing every night), but there was a lot more suffocation in Randyland. I get why she needed to break free.
OK, this is the part where I link it to Trump. Hang with me.
You know the MAGA thing? That “Make America Great Again” implies that America’s not great but it was sometime in the mythical past. Trump picked 1950 when America was last great. 1950, the peak of Jim Crow segregation. 1950, before the modern feminist movement, the gay rights movement, and the disability rights movement. If you were a black transperson in a wheelchair, America was not great in 1950. Or a woman. And TVs sucked. Give me my 2022 Samsung flatscreen TV and my pronouns and leave 1950 to your back & white fantasy. Father knew best, or so we were told. The MAGA crowd wants that bullshit past back. They dream of the by-gone days of Jim Crow. Colin Kaepernick “knew his place” in 1950.
But that’s the thing. We over-nostalgize the past. It was always better back then. Music was better. Fashion was better. It was a “simpler” time, blah, blah, blah. In fact, the past was both great and shitty, just like the present. And it was plenty complex, but we were familiar with the complexity. The future is uncertain and the past is a cozy blanket. No wonder people want to go back to it. And that tendency just gets worse the older you get. The 2010s, ah those were the days. The past is a safe haven for the timid. The future is scary as hell. You saw what happened with Bitcoin. But you’ve really gotta embrace the unknown, as frightening as it is. It might kick you in the crotch, but it’s better than spending your life reminiscing about your baseball card collection.
We do the same damn thing when a relationship is ending. “But it was so great! Look at how happy we are in these pictures.” The reality, like America in 1950, is more complex. It was great and shitty. There were plenty of hard times. But I remember it more fondly because I was the planet she revolved around. I was white Father Knows Best guy. For her it was Jim Crow. She was the “colored girl” who needed to get the hell out of Mississippi.
Coming to terms with co-dependency means acknowledging the imbalance. I don’t know if Andi and I will have any more “Oslo moments.” I hope so. But I understand why she had to escape Randyland. I’m escaping it, too.
When you grow up in the South, age 33 is supposed to be the transformative year. After all, that’s the year that Jesus got his shit together to fulfill the prophecy of getting himself executed. Southern wisdom is that if you’re not married by 33, maybe with a kid but definitely with your economic house in order, you’re are letting Ol’ Jesus down. For me, 17 was the year I got out of the house and figured out I was going become an academic instead of dentist. Thank Jesus. That was a year my sense of self felt like it was really coming together.
This is my last day as a 57-year-old and that brace-faced teenager seems light years away (and so does the 33-year-old). The past 12 months have been more transformative than anything I’ve ever encountered. When I look back at February 2021 me, I barely recognize the guy. Somethings are sadly the same. I’m still lobbying for a job in the Biden Administration and there still isn’t a fully functioning kitchen in this house, but the person in this spot has shed that skin. 2021 me looked like a lost boy, bouncing in the glee of the moment, but taking everything around him for granted.
If there was any year I wish I could have a do-over it would be 57. Previously it was 16 (so I could go to New York and save John Lennon) and then it was 21 (just because it was so incredibly awesome). But 57 was a year of stupid mistakes, like beginner blunders on a chess board. Beside forgetting Andi and my wedding anniversary for the second year in the row, I had fairly spectacular meltdowns in New Orleans and at the final night of Mary’s Club that had her questioning my sanity. In between those, I uncovered my history of child sexual abuse but not before I further sabotaged her trust in me. The new year began with me back on the proverbial cliff, contemplating non-existence. It was a hard year. Hard on my family.
The good news is I got back on the anti-depressants and found a therapist who really helped me get to the root issues, leading to what feels like a complete rebirth from the troubled narcissist I was. My journey in therapy began in 1998 when I was forced to confront some of those issues around depression. It generated a good book on the subject (that I’m proud of and everyone should buy), but it never really got to the starting point of my tendency to shoot myself in the foot over and over again. Thanks to Andi encouraging me to read more on my issues, I picked up a few books on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and then found a somatic therapist who specialized in hypo-therapy. It was time to go deep. This is the year my Saturn is in return, so big change is inevitable.
The time spent in therapy has been revelatory. The first time she put me into a relaxed state where I could actually talk to that 4-year-old boy who had been abused changed my whole way of being. I began to let go of my constant anger (which I visualized as the Incredible Hulk) that I laid on anyone in my radius, including my family and my wife. Developing skills to be mindful of my emotions reminded me that I can center other people and not be dangerously vulnerable. And being safely vulnerable is actually a good thing. (Yeah, I now know all about Brené Brown. She’s a rock star.) I can finally breathe. It’s going to be alright.
Today, our daughter asked if Andi was going to move back home. On the weeks Andi has Cozy, I spend as much time in her apartment as I do in our house, often laying next to her in bed in the early morning minutes before the alarm clock goes off, watching her sleep and thinking about how I used to complain about her snoring. I am in love with that snore. Old Randy might have asked his daughter to play some Jedi mind tricks on Mom, but I just said, “I hope she does, but I don’t really know. It’s up to her but whatever she chooses, we want her to be happy.”
There was a moment in this process where I saw a truth that Andi had long known, that when you truly love someone, you live to serve them, not your ego. I am here to serve her and our daughter, in whatever capacity the universe allows. My journey through the challenge of self-work this year highlighted that our complacency with our selves and our relationships is our biggest threat to our happiness. It’s too easy to be lazy in our culture, scrolling through life. We’re not done. There’s work unfinished. At least there is for me.
I turn 58 tomorrow. That used to seem so old. But I feel like I just grew up.
Like most people who survived the epic disaster film that was 2020, I had high hopes for 2021. I kept singing that Who song from Tommy; “I got a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year.” Trump was defeated, the COVID vaccine was coming, and things seemed to be great on the home front. Man, I was wrong on all counts.
January 6 was the first day of winter classes at PCC, Andi’s 31st birthday, and the day Donald Trump staged a coup to flush American democracy down the toilet. As I Zoomed with my sociology students, we split screened in realtime the assault on the capitol, while my wife realized that the folks who have their birthdays on September 11 now had some fellow travelers.
Then the Delta variant busted through the vaccine barricades destroying any hope of kicking off the new Roaring 20s. It took me down in August, as I spent ten days flat on my back, hoping I wouldn’t cough a lung out. I survived thanks to Andi and Cozy dropping food and medicine into the basement. And that wasn’t even my worst moment of 2021.
Much of this early part of this year, this blog was dedicated to thoughtful policy pieces responding to the January 6th insurrection but then it turned personal. Over the summer my bad habits hit a low point, leading to the realization of the impact of a sexual assault that happened to me when I was just four years old. I tried to make sense of how that explained my narcissistic tendencies but it just made things more unstable in my relationship. In October, Andi moved out to rescue her sense of self. It was exactly what I needed to put the pieces together and leave that 4-year-old boy back in 1968. The time we spend together now is more meaningful than ever. You can’t say you love someone and take them for granted year after year. The personal growth the last third of this year has been so exciting, thanks to good reading, great therapists, and a loving wife who lives just down the street.
There were plenty of great moments this year, including our cross country, Atlanta to Portland, road trip. The meandering journey took us to the Arizona-Mexico border where Andi crossed when she was 8, and leading to one of my favorite blog posts of the year. This year I also joined the faculty at the University of Oregon, returning to the physical classroom to discuss racism twice a week with 150 students in Eugene. I read a lot of self-help books, listened to newly released Beatles songs, watched Cozy turn 7, sweeping into second grade (after over a year in remote), and had a hundred amazing dates with Andi. My meditation and mindfulness practices help me navigate even the hardest of moments.
I’m not going to make any predictions about 2022. It could go either way. Andi and I have tickets for a much-needed trip to Paris in March (as spouses, lovers, or just friends, we’ll see) so I hope the Omicron variant doesn’t lead to a global shutdown this spring. I do know I will continue to work on the hard issues and the hardest issue of all is myself.
Like pretty much every Beatle fan, I’ve been waiting on Peter Jackson’s epic recut of the the Beatles’ 1970 Let It Be film. I first saw it as a midnight movie in Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1978, wincing when the rednecks hissed at Yoko Ono’s first appearance on the screen. The 1970 film was a sad document of a fabled band breaking up. Get Back, the new film, culled from 60 hours of unseen footage from those sessions, promised to rewrite the narrative of January 1969, which George Harrison had branded, “the winter of our discontent.”
I geared up for the Thanksgiving event by buying the 5 disc Let It Be “Super Deluxe” box set and reviewing it on my YouTube channel. I’d read everything about the sessions in the previous 40+ years, so I wasn’t expecting any surprises. And yet, all I got were surprises. It wasn’t just the insight into the working process of the band (Ringo’s farting not withstanding). It was the psychological dissection of what happens when strong personalities stifle equally strong personalities.
Thanksgiving morning Andrea and Cozy came over so we could make this viewing a family event. Andi and I curled up on the couch together and fell into the first part of the eight-hour three-day fab fest the world had been waiting for. Besides the brilliant ’69 fashions and endless smoking, which made us both briefly made us consider taking up the habit, was the revelation of the psychodynamic between John, Paul, George, and Ringo. In the first episode, there’s a moment when Paul discusses and accepts that he is losing his lifelong best friend to Yoko. Paul, looking old at 26, mourns the man who had been his musical partner since he was 14. There’s a long silent shot and you can see his eyes dampen. The realization that closeness is not locked in for life is shattering. John was now “John and Yoko.” No wonder Paul McCartney fell into a deep depression a year later.
But the great story is George Harrison’s rebellion. The Beatles were Lennon and McCartney’s band, both in camera time and musical direction. The quiet Beatle was lucky to get a few of his own tunes on each album. By 1969 he’d been hanging out with Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and The Band but was still relegated to sideman in his own group. The songs he was bringing into the band were equal to Paul’s and even better than the ones John was bringing in. (John was checked out, on Yoko and on smack.) Just listen to the Beatles’ version of George’s “All Things Must Pass” and you can see how the understudy had become the master.
George could have just taken it all on the chin, the price of being a Beatle. But on January 10th, George stood up for himself and quit The Beatles. After seven days of rehearsing mostly Paul’s songs in a dank soundstage, George walked out saying, “See you ‘round the clubs,” and that was it. The Beatles were now a trio. Years later, in The Beatles Anthology (1995), George recalled his thinking at the time. “What’s the point of this? I’m quite capable of being relatively happy on my own and I’m not able to be happy in this situation. I’m getting out of here.” Certainly there’s more we don’t see on the screen in Get Back, including financial headaches at Apple and George’s crumbling marriage (apparently he was shacked up with Clapton’s ex-girlfriend at the time), but we see the youngest Beatle take a stand for his own sanity.
We also see John, Paul, and Ringo sink into a mild panic at George’s departure. John suggest recruiting Clapton, who had played on 1968’s Beatle classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” They end up heading off on a visit (and then a second) to their young friend’s house to cajole him back into Beatledom. End of episode one.
Andrea and I reconvened on the couch the following day for Episode Two as the Beatles reconvened at Apple headquarters. Watching the Fabs, George included, enter the white office building on 3 Saville Row gave us a kick has we had been in the building on our trip to London in 2018. It’s now an Abercrombie Kids store. And yes they sell Beatles shirts. In 1982, I actually snuck onto the roof of the then empty building but we were seeing the reunited quartet walk in the same door we had. Turns out that one of George’s conditions to return was that the band move to the warmer Apple studio in the basement of 3 Saville Row.
The sweet spot occurs on January 11th, George’s second day back when he brings in old friend of the band, Billy Preston. Billy sits in on keyboards on tunes like “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Don’t Let Me Down” and the chemistry is instant. These much labored-over songs now sound like album tracks. The look on George’s face was ecstatic, like you assholes downplayed my creative input and I just saved this imploding band. Oh, the satisfaction he must have felt.
Andi and I had a long conversation afterwards about how stifling a person’s true self just doles out misery around the circle. But when you honor their whole potential everyone benefits. There certainly were parallels in our situation as just a few weeks prior she had told me, “See you ‘round the clubs.” Without knowing it, I had been Paul McCartney, trying to make “our band” my band. I thought I was doing her a favor “letting her” have a few songs when she had a triple album’s worth of material ready to go that was far superior to my silly love songs.
We stayed up until midnight to catch the premiere of Episode Three, that took the band up to the roof of Apple, where I would stand 12 years later. On that cold January 30th day nearly 53 years ago, the lads were in their true element, full of joy as a cohesive creative unit, blasting out “Get Back” to the curious listeners below. “I want to look at you the way Paul looks at John,” Andi said. I just want her to have the smile that George Harrison had on that rooftop. As we prepared to step back into our separate lives, feeling finally fully present with her true self, I thanked her for three of the best days I’d had in my life, spent with her, our daughter, and the Beatles. And I hope I passed the audition.
Blogs are ultimately about personal journeys. I began this blog on November 24, 2014 as a daily chronicle of my life as stay-at-home dad. I intended it to be me channelling the porto-feminism of pioneering house-husband John Lennon. That lasted exactly one day. By November 25th, I was writing about the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in what would be the first in a long line of posts about the Black Lives Matter movement. In those seven years, my writing has ranged from family life stories to global gender politics and everything in between.
There have been two pillars in this writing. The first is the firm belief that we are all works in progress, never fully complete. We can’t make the world a better place if we are not willing to make ourselves better people. And mistakes will be made. That’s part of the process. The second pillar has been how I’ve benefitted from the input from my wife, Andrea. Her patience, strength, and wisdom have pushed me to be that better man. And her experience as a member of a few different marginalized populations has allowed me to confront my own privileges head on. If I could only give her as much as she’s given me.
So here’s one of those entries about the need to evolve.
It’s been clear in this year of revelations that I still have a lot of work to do on myself. Uncovering my abuse story has helped me see the roots of some of my narcissistic personality traits, but that doesn’t automatically cure them. So Andrea has moved out so I could focus on that work. She got a studio apartment nearby and I helped her move in. The three of us had dinner there that first night as I let this separation settle in. We talk constantly and she’s endlessly encouraging. We have dates planned and I bring her coffee in the morning. But this is time set aside for me to make my mindfulness practices my natural way of being and for her to figure out if the woman she’s become fits with the man I’m becoming.
I have a pretty heavy lecture in my criminology class about domestic violence and about how battered women who flee abuse are as likely to be killed by their male partners as they are by staying with them. (Then I tell them to watch Sleeping with the Enemy and listen to “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks.) Research on wife-killers shows these man can’t handle that “their” women have been rejected and just snap. It’s the ultimate act of patriarchal control.
While the thought of violence has never crossed my mind, I’ve never been very good at break-ups, centering my emotional pain instead of what’s best for my (former) partners. Just ask my first girlfriend who ended our relationship so she could spend a year studying in Paris. I got to Paris a few weeks before her and spray-painted her name all over the city, including on a stature of Moliére at the Sorbonne, where she would be enrolled. I thought I was being wildly romantic, but I was just being wildly creepy, inserting myself into her post-Randy life in the City of Light.
So the evolved version of me has kicked that version of masculinity to the curb. This is about what Andi needs right now and how I can listen and deliver. Certainly 2021 has been filled with examples of me not doing that, including plenty of mad examples of me freaking out as I fell down the rabbit hole of panic and defensiveness that were shaped by a lifetime of acting out the patterns created by my childhood abuse. Putting in the work is under way. I finally feel like an adult and instead of a petulant child and it feels good. I enter this phase with respect, grace, a mountain of admiration for this woman who I will get to know in a completely new way.
My great hope is this process won’t take long. Apartments in Portland are not cheap and it’s coming out of her pocket. We have a trip to Paris planned for this spring and that spray-paint will have long faded away. I’m committed to making that the case for the version of me that took her for granted. Faded away like a lovelorn teenager’s graffiti.
We social scientists love to come up with sharp names for social phenomenon. I’ve written a lot in this blog about anomie, Emile Durkheim’s 1897 term for the sense of normlessness that’s helped to explain the backslide into Trumpism. There’s been a lot of talk about Naomi Klein’s 2007 concept of shock doctrine again. But there are some phenomenon that still have no name, like when your walk into a bookstore or record store and immediately forget what you were looking for. Or when vintage t-shirts for a band that you know and love are being sold at Urban Outfitters to posers who never listened to the damn band. (“Name one Motorhead song! I dare you!”) There should be a name for that!
There’s another phenomenon as yet unnamed – feeling nostalgic for really horrible times. I just finished reading The Volunteer, Jack Fairweather’s epically researched 2019 book about a Polish officer who snuck into Auschwitz in 1940 and spent the next two and half years sending out reports of Nazi atrocities and organizing the camp resistance. Then when it became clear that the concentration camp had transitioned into a mass death camp, he escaped. When he was out, with good food and free from Typhus-infected lice and the stench of burning bodies, you know what he wanted to do? Go back! That world made sense, unlike the blasé attitude (that’s Georg Simmel’s concept) towards the Holocaust he found outside the camp.
I first experienced this weird feeling about a year after 9/11. The 2001 terrorist attacks had unified the nation. Republican and Democratic congress people stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless In America.” I was in Atlanta where locals covered their “Yankees Suck!” T-shirts with “I Love New York.” Sure there was some serious Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes, but there was also a powerful sense that we were all in this together. I miss that. Do we need another slaughter of civilians to get that feeling back?
As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, I can already feel that old itch coming back. As of today, 136 million Americans are fully vaccinated (About 41.5% of the US population). Kids are wrapping up the last of their remote learning and we even saw a movie in a movie theater last weekend! There are nearly 4 million souls worldwide to mourn (with deaths spiking in India and Vietnam) and a mental health toll that will take generations to fully see, but, at least here on the home front, you can lay off the mask-making, feverous hand-washing, and crossing the street to avoid a panting jogger. Happy days are here again.
So what’s that tinge? The dread of having to jump back into the endless rush hour commute or the race to get the kid to school on time? Not having an excuse to not hang out with boring people? Having to find your pants? (Or buy new ones because you were binging on Love Island while devouring countless mole burritos, delivered by GrubHub?) The earth got a year-long break from us as the drop in our carbon footprints let us see the horizon for the first time in a generation. (“I didn’t know the Himalayas were right there!”) Although, I imagine landfills exploded with take-out containers in 2020. Are we ready to say goodbye to those random whiffs of fresh air?
Around mid-March 2020, when it started to be clear we were going to have to hunker down for a while, I said goodbye to some life-sustaining activities, like seeing live music and being belly-up to the bar with a whiskey ginger and set of great songs cued up on the jukebox. But I also thought of the things I’d have time to do, like read for fun and work on fixing up the house. Andi and I even started writing a screenplay. Most of that fell by the wayside as we found solace in the endless stream of Hulu and Netflix. Maybe we’ll finish the screenplay during the next pandemic. (Jinks!)
So I never got around to reading War & Peace (but I did spend way too many hours dissecting the new Dylan album). However one wonderful thing that came out of the lockdown was the opportunity to work on my marriage. There was really no escape, so it was either that or build myself a shed in the backyard. With ample supplies from the thank-god-it-stayed-open liquor store, we stayed up late into the nights, talking about how to build a stronger connection that was as beneficial to her. Zoom therapy sessions helped me identify some useful tools and Andi gave me a reading list. The book You Might be a Narcissist If…: How to Identify Narcissism in Ourselves and Others and What We Can DoAbout It turned my whole head around within two pages. There were some rough moments when I thought Donald Trump wasn’t the only thing that was going to get canceled by COVID, but she encouraged me to do the work and not fall back on old lazy habits. Without the 9-5 and the call of the nightlife, I could focus on what was and is important.
Perhaps everyone found a silver lining during this mess. So many of us, fearing for older family members, brought people together through Zoom sessions. I talked to my mother on the phone this year more than I have in the last 5 years combined. Neighbors began looking out for each other, making masks and hot meals and checking on that crazy old man nobody ever talks to. There was an explosion of book clubs and cocktail parties on Google Meet
As I craved live music, online concerts from home became a lifeline. (Ben Gibbard and Kevn Kinney, thank you.) And all the free webinars plugged me into global community of peers. We spent plenty of time over the last year in the streets, but there was plenty of activism that was happening in front of laptops. Just the fact that† my first grader spent this past February digesting amazing stories for Black History Month gave me hope that consciousness raising can happen on a keyboard. I know I wasn’t the only one who used the down time to plug into the whole wide world via webcam.
No doubt around 2030 they will start throwing 2020 socially distanced parties, and people can go to the costume store and buy face masks, sweat pants and “Got My Fauci Ouchie!” T-shirts. We can not invite anti-Asian hate criminals and the phony militia men protesting public health mandates, as we dance alone to oldies by DaBaby and/or Lil Baby and pretend we don’t know what day it is. Me at this moment, I’m just trying to come up a name for the strange feeling that I’m a little sad this nightmare is ending. Just a little.