Dec 21, 2012 - World Religions    No Comments

It’s (really not) the end of the world as we know it…

So, the world didn’t end today. Again.

We rely heavily on our family in New Zealand, since they’re the first major nation over the International Date Line (no offense intended, Tonga). They called us just after midnight their time on Y2K, and remarked upon the lack of planes falling from the sky or mayhem in the street, beyond the usual New Year’s hazards of the overcelebrated. I don’t think the Kiwis get enough credit for being the first through the breach on all these doomsdays. When you wake up tomorrow, give a little salute to your (extreme) southwest–they’d appreciate it.

I was entirely reassured already, though, because I am an historian. Specifically, I’m a historian of pre-modern history. I study populations who have predicted the end of the world almost as often as they crowned rulers. Sometimes, the doomsday date came from a monk with a little too much time and Arab math skills on his hands. Sometimes, it came from the profiteering predictions of rulers who needed the quick economic stimulus that fire sale prices on property could bring. And sometimes, just like today, it came from the crazies on the street corners. My very favorite sentence in the long and excellent book by Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, can be paraphrased as, “In 15-something-or-other, two men climbed to the roof of a London tenement and attempted to ascend to heaven.” (Alas, if they’d only thought to bring a ladder…)

Both the furor over creationism and the bizarre obsession with events like Y2K and the Mayan Apocalypse come from a fundamentally flawed view of the universe: Westerners are obsessed with linear time, seeing the history of the universe as a predefined line segment, with clear start and end points. Many folks tilt this axis upward, projecting the constant progress of humanity–they tend to see newer, bigger, better things as preferable over tradition. Others see it like an inverted V, in which some previous generation attained the height of civilization, from which we are now sliding inevitably toward a degrading loss of the standards that defined that earlier, optimal time.

But that’s not how I see time, and neither did the Mayans or any other number of pre-modern cultures who paid attention to the universe around them. The vast majority of civilizations have perceived that nature and the universe  appear to operate, at least in part, in repetitive cycles. Sometimes, it’s a closed circuit–pagans celebrate the Wheel of the Year, which marks the points in the solar year that dictate agricultural and animal patterns. Othertimes, it extends in a sort of spiral, with regular milestones but a sense of forward (or sometimes backward) progression through reincarnation. There’s a reason the Mayan calendar looks like a giant wheel–it’s not meant to end. Today represents the completion of another long cycle, an event worth marking and celebrating, but in no way a period at the end of humanity’s existence.

And tonight, my family will brave the chilly Minnesota night–already velvet-black and deep, at the end of this shortest day–to gather with others to keep watch against the dark. This vigil is millenia old, and yet the message at its heart has spread into almost every culture, the world around. The sun is down; the sun will return. Ring the bells, light the fires, sing the songs to push back the night. Resist the cold, the winter, that starves and bays at the door with warmth and good cheer. For tomorrow, and every day after for months to come, the sun will return, stronger every day.

What good can such an ancient lesson hold in a culture obsessed with the new, the update, the next edition? It teaches us that no chance ever fully passes us by. It teaches us that it’s worth our best effort, every time. It teaches us that there’s a spark of light in the heart of the deepest darkness, and perseverance and faith can sustain us as long as we know brighter days will come.

Know why I’m so sure? Because we almost lost our son this year, to despair and myopia and the feeling that his sensory torture would never get better. And tonight, he rushed into our home after school, brandishing an airplane toy for his brother and a triumphant smile. He’d saved up his good-behavior points for weeks, and spent them on a gift for his little brother. He defied the dark in his world–the darkness that some voices want us to believe drive autistics to unredeemable acts of violence–and now he takes joy in making others happy.

12/21/12 isn’t the end of the world. Neither was 12/31/99. They’re all just one more circuit around the sun, one more circuit around the calendar, one more excuse to find wonder with one another that we all get more chances. That the light comes back, no matter how dark it feels. So set the timer on the coffee pot for tomorrow morning. Morning may come late, but it’s definitely coming. Every single day. Miraculous, isn’t it?

Dec 7, 2012 - Psychology, Social Studies    3 Comments

The Gifts That Keep On Giving

Almost every good and wonderful thing about the winter holidays is a sensory delight. The smells of cold snow and freshly cut pine and butter-rich cookies tingle in our noses. Pipe organs and French horns and jingly bells and heavenly choirs and crinkly paper delight our ears with musical sounds rarely used in the rest of the year. Velvety and satiny fabrics combine with delightfully scratchy sweaters and fuzzy hats in our special party clothes. We write ourselves dietary hall passes for the dozens of special, luscious holiday foods. And the lights…oh, the lights! Who doesn’t gasp and crane at the sight of an elaborately decorated building or brilliantly lit tree?

Now imagine all that cranked up to 11. Welcome to the holidays on autism.

Sounds amazing, right? But for autistics and their families, the holidays can be overwhelming and stressful. So many folks struggle with money and family drama and expectations about all things merry and bright, and with schedules and nerves and input jacked up on Kringle Fever. These things stress out the neurodiverse too–and they often have difficulty expressing what’s too much, especially if it feels like that’ll disappoint their loved ones. Naps, hugs (physical or otherwise), routines all go a long way to mitigate these stresses, and though you may feel like a Grinch insisting on bedtimes and dietary restrictions, you’ll be grateful later when you and your family have more spoons left over for fun.

All this is in response to a blog post I read over on Autism Daddy today (thanks to Joshua for the link!). He lamented his inability to participate in a common source of small talk among parents this time of year–what their kids want for Christmas. Every parent dreams of giving the perfect gift that makes their child light up brighter than starlight, but on autistics, that looks a bit different.

Still, you can give gifts that’ll make their lives easier and more enjoyable all year long. And I urge you all to resist the urge to jump to the conclusion that gifts for special needs kids have nothing in common with, or aren’t “as fun” as, the gifts neurotypical kids want. After all, autistics are “more human than human,” as I heard Paul Collins say on Speaking of Faith years ago. And the things that feel good to them often feel good to (or solve problems for) neurotypical folks too.

I don’t know a single kid who doesn’t love the hell out of jumping on a trampoline. If you give a kid a mini-tramp (with a handle and helmet!) that fits in their bedroom, or passes for an hour at the hangar-sized trampoline parks popping up in industrial parks, you would get a medal for Best Adult EVER from children everywhere.

And who doesn’t wish they had a chair that closes up like a clam some days? In today’s open-plan, no-doors work environment, I think these may be the Next Big Thing at the very best chair stores.

And this is just the beginning. There are loads of adaptive technologies which are practical solutions to everyday problems, and you’d be the hero for putting it under the tree. For example, kids are asked to write on whiteboards at school every day, but if you’re a lefty, you spend half your time trying not to drag your arm through what you just wrote and have to start all over again when you finish each line. This cool LCD lightboard eliminates that problem! And tags in the back collar of shirts and underwear drive everyone nuts, not just autistics, so be a hero and give a box of tagless clothes that can be worn under anything.

There’s an extensive list of assistive and adaptive technologies (both high- and low-tech) at the Research Autism website, but many of these things aren’t only available to therapists or educators anymore. Online speciality retailers like and sell everything from squeeze machines to weighted blankets to awesome fidget toys (which make excellent stocking stuffers). And a lot of the best gifts for autistics are available right in your local Walmart or Target–exercise balls, tagless shirts and underwear, blankets with lovely silky binding and nifty textures, and glasses with clear, funky-colored lenses are all fantastic fun gifts for every kid.

(Important Note: You NEVER want to be the person who gives the Toys That Make The Noise. This is exponentially more the case for families with neurodiverse kids. They will hate you forever.)

It gets tiring being the educator-in-chief, and I definitely have days when I don’t want to explain autism and how the world feels through that lens one more time. But instead of feeling left out because you aren’t having the same experience as other neurotypical parents and children, it’s more fun to focus on what makes us all feel good. That’s a wonderful gift to give and be given, any time of year.


Nov 28, 2012 - Social Studies    14 Comments

Pass the Bucket

I cringe as soon as I hear the bell ringing in front of the grocery store. My kids are primed to be generous, and immediately pester me for pocket change to put in the red bucket. I tell them “no” quietly and, to head off the inevitable “why” that follows, say, “They don’t believe they have to help everyone who comes to them in need, and I don’t want to support that.” I fast-walk the boys into the store and give the bellringer a tight smile.

This routine defies every philanthropic fiber in my being. We take things to Goodwill, we buy poppies from veterans, we buy Girl Scout cookies (okay, that one’s got side benefits). We support public radio and television, we give to our church, we buy ridiculous things from school fundraisers. Lupus, leukemia, lymphoma, lumbago–we give to them all. We collect pennies in UNICEF and Guest At Your Table boxes, which fall apart under the weight of the change every time.

But I will not give one copper penny to the Salvation Army.

SA hits many criteria that appeal to folks who want to do good. They work on first-order needs–feed the starving, shelter the homeless, clothe the poor–often in emergency situations. Especially at the holidays, when so many appeals come from charitable organizations, it can be difficult to prioritize causes, and SA makes it easy: give money here, help people in need. They even use a low-pressure ask, simply ringing a bell, rather than shaking a coffee can in people’s faces.

But SA’s help is given conditionally. If you want a meal, a cot, a coat, you must attend Christian worship. These aren’t gentle ecumenical services, either. You will be told you are full of sin, that your current problems have roots in your inadequate acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior, that repentance and sacrifice are needed, and that only the saving power of the Christian God can take away your temporal suffering. There is fire and there is brimstone. There is even heresy, depending on your Christian theology–SA preaches “Lordship Salvation” which requires constant human effort for salvation.

And all that assumes that they’ve let you in the doors in the first place. SA’s track record for turning away gay and lesbian people in need is well documented, even those in committed partnerships. A British chapter even turned away a naked, injured rape victim because they “only serve men” at their location, despite the organization’s stated policy to make counseling and emergency assistance available to crime victims.

If that doesn’t disturb you enough to pass the pail, consider what happens to some donations. SA has used charitable gifts to support anti-gay legislation in America and abroad. Other SA officials have seen fit to throw away brand-new, donated, Harry Potter toys and books, because they didn’t want to be complicit in turning recipients toward Satan. And still others have simply helped themselves to the largesse they collect for others. We don’t even have a clear idea how much money SA takes in, or how it moves around within the organization, because for most of their operating history, they’ve hidden behind the IRS disclosure shield for churches.

I’ll admit that a big part of my personal problem with this organization comes from our differing views on the definition of “salvation” and how you get there. Militant religion has made me queasy since the first time I understood the words of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Never forget that SA stands for Salvation Army, not Salvation Association or Salvation Achievers.

And before their symbol was this: 

it was this: 

I don’t believe anyone needs to be “saved,” and I don’t think scaring and shaming them would do it, even if they did. I believe that good acts are their own reward, and that there should never be a cost for help, especially not one that amounts to emotional extortion in a person’s most powerless moments.

If you really want to do good–and another thing I believe is that everyone really does want to do good–there are so many places that need you. If you feel like freezing your butt off, don’t just stand there ringing a bell–take meals to the homeless and invite them into life-saving shelters on the coldest of nights. If you have a strange attraction to American coinage, collect it for your local food shelf so families can enjoy a special holiday meal. If you want to spread the message of your holy days, help your church or temple with its social justice projects. And if you just don’t know where to start, look right around you. Your neighbors, your friends, your family, you all know someone who’s hurting: a person facing a holiday alone, or hungry, or scared, or without the tools or means to give the children in their lives the wonder and joy so many of us associate with this time of year.

It doesn’t take an army to save people. We can save each other, with our own hands and hearts and wide open eyes.


Held In The Hand

You hear a lot in the wake of a big election about who has the mandate. This year, with all the time I’ve spent with gay friends on the marriage campaign, my first reaction to the word was, “With who? Gimme the dish!” But I got all excited for nothing—they just mean the same old tired definition. It seems to generally go along with a sweeping victory, but what exactly qualifies as “sweeping” (and even what qualifies as “victory,” sometimes) covers a range of outcomes you could drive a truck through. 
But the historian in me got to wondering: Where did this concept of an authorization or endorsement of one side’s agenda come from?
The term mandate comes directly out of Latin, which is unsurprising, since most ideas of political power were defined—in one way or another—by those experts in bureaucracy, the Romans. But the etymology suggests something more of a public trust: mandate means “to give into the hand” (manus = hand; dare = to give). Romans used the past participle, mandatum, to mean something given into a person’s care. 
By the 15th century, mandatum turns into mandat, which meant a legal or judicial order in early modern France. The wars of religion were already revving up, but there had been two sources for such orders for almost 1000 years: secular courts, run by a local magistrate, noble (often the same), or even the king; and canon courts, run by the Catholic Church. While secular courts dealt with problems of property, feudal allegiances, or the usurpation of the state’s prerogative to use violence, the canon courts claimed crimes with a moral or sinful dimension (e.g., marital disputes), as well as any crime committed by members of the clergy, which included not just priests and monks, but any member of the Catholic bureaucracy, including university students.
So there’s already both a political/legal sense of the word that existed alongside a very spiritual idea of trust and care. And the Romans weren’t the only ones to invest the word mandate with those dual meanings. Ancient China, starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), ascribed its rulers with the mandate of heaven. To the Western eye, the mandate of heaven looks like a version of the divine right of rulers. But in China, the endorsement of the divine depended on continued moral leadership (both leadership with morals and demonstrating exemplary morals), and if the leader was not sufficiently generous, just, conservative (in the small “c” sense of conserving tradition and resources for future generations), and observant of religious obligations, then Heaven would revoke its mandate. This could serve as justification—even an endorsement—for popular uprising and the overthrow of the regime. (1)
If that sounds similar to something American rebels against England could get behind, you’re not wrong. And, in fact, 1796 is the first time mandate is used in the modern political sense of approval of policies as communicated by the outcome of a vote. (2) Naturally, the only American politician whom everyone agrees had a mandate was George Washington. But while the Constitution provided a framework for elections, it’s clear that the Framers had no intention to ascribe endorsement of policy change to the outcome of those elections.
But that sure hasn’t kept our presidents from claiming that mandate. Andrew Jackson, who was elected after the Twelfth Amendment (1804) correlated the popular vote with the actions of the Electoral College, asserted that the President “was an immediate and direct representative of the people” in order to legitimize the changes he had in mind for the Bank of the United States. Woodrow Wilson is credited with giving voice to the idea that the President is the only nationally elected representative, saying “There is but one national voice in the country, and that is the voice of the President.”
Richard Nixon made the first direct use of the word mandate when he announced in 1973 that “Last November, the American people were given the clearest choice of the century. Your votes were a mandate, which I accepted, to complete the initiatives we began in my first term and to fulfill the promises I made for my second term.” But both Kennedy and Nixon in his first term were elected with only a plurality of the national vote (less than a 50% plus one vote majority), and Jimmy Carter received a bare 50.1% of the vote in 1976. Reagan won in 1980 with less than 51% of the national vote, yet the Vice-President-Elect claimed that Reagan’s victory was “not simply a mandate for change but a mandate for peace and freedom; a mandate for prosperity; a mandate for opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, sex, or creed; a mandate for leadership that is strong and compassionate….” (3)
Not that we’ve ever agreed with our opponents’ claims, or the extent of that mandate for proposing new policy. As presidential elections have become increasingly about the personal qualities of proposed leaders, and less about specifically communicated policy intentions, I think it’s worth looking back at where the idea of a mandate comes from. With the country so divided along ideological and party lines, it’s unlikely that we’ll see popular vote margins large enough to satisfy everyone that the winner has a clear endorsement from the people. Even Barack Obama, the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win back-to-back majorities of the popular vote and the Electoral College, obviously isn’t seen as holding a mandate from a significant portion of Americans.
But, more than ever, it’s important for our leaders to proceed knowing, as the Romans and Chinese knew, that they hold their power in their hands—they hold the people in their hands. And it is a fragile thing, so easily crushed by inattention and the flexes of muscle demanded by other parts of the job. Though Bush’s presidency represented it in absolutely no way at all, I appreciate the idea of “compassionate conservatism.” The people and their trust must be treated with compassion, not ruthless budgetary efficiency or wasteful military squandering, or neither of them can be conserved for the good of the country’s future. 
Held in their hands, our leaders could easily squeeze out the civic feeling and confidence in good governing, exhausting those tender values before the next generation can refill those reservoirs with youthful optimism. The real mandate that every legislator must embrace is the one to earn our trust and preserve our faith in the institutions to which they want us to appoint them.
(1) For more on the Chinese idea of The Mandate of Heaven, watch this helpful video.
(2) Etymological details of the word mandate come from here.
(3) History of the Presidential mandate from Wikipedia entries for individual presidents, and this excellent article by Robert Dahl in Political Science Quarterly, found here.
Nov 12, 2012 - Political Science    1 Comment

Dear Levi

I’m sorry for such an odd first letter. I’ve been trying to write about the election for almost a week now, but I’ve failed to find the words, so I hope you forgive this awkward effort.

You see, in the nine months I’ve been working my heart out to defeat the hurtful amendment that would’ve permanently banned same-sex marriage in Minnesota, I never let myself imagine what came next. I’m very much a “hope for the best, but plan for the worst” kind of person.

And in those last, frantic days, I only had the energy to focus on the work, not the outcome. I was grateful, in a weird way, that the Darling Husband’s conference for work required me to stay out of the campaign office over the weekend.

John Barrowman, Connor, and me at a book signing at Red Balloon Bookshop

The moral support from John Barrowman (say it with me, mmm hmm) didn’t hurt either. But I found myself conducting mental calculations, trying to negotiate a way to go in for a few hours more. I’m a complete junkie.

But I never could’ve done the 13+ hour days of training and coaching and troubleshooting and calling on Monday and Tuesday if I hadn’t been forced to rest up a bit. They were excruciatingly painful, and endlessly exhilarating. I don’t I’ve ever “been on” so unrelentingly, for so long, as I was in those last two days. And it felt like someone had been caning the soles of my feet by the time the boots came off at night.

But the atmosphere was electric in the Saint Paul office. It seemed like volunteers knew something special was happening, and people who’d never put in an hour on the campaign before took an hour off work so they could say they’d been a part of it. And those of us who’ve been in it for the long haul were determined to squeeze every last experience from our time. The first shift I did back at the main office, they had a sumptuous spread of food, and they interrupted shifts for a dance break. I was furious! I’d been busting my ass for almost three months off-site–we didn’t have crockpots of soup and conga lines! (I felt a little better when folks told me that these things only came along in that last week.)

Anne, Emily, Claire, and Vern at the very last phone bank of the campaign.

We knew this extraordinary moment wasn’t going to last much longer, even though we weren’t completely sure what would come next. I saw no fewer than five efforts to collect emails and phone numbers from the staff and hardcore volunteers. Even little Phoebe was trying to create a little phone book so she wouldn’t lose any of the people who’d filled her world for almost a year (an incalculable time, for an eight-year-old).

I felt badly going home to watch election returns, instead of down to the RiverCentre for the big party. I really wanted to be there with everyone, but it was a school night and I knew it would be a long time before we knew anything about the outcome. So I went home to watch returns with the person who made me such a big fan of marriage in the first place.

You’ve probably seen the video of Richard Carlbom, in the middle of telling everyone to head home and get some rest, receive the news that we’d won. My Twitter feed the next day was full of staffers giving him flak for that Howard Dean yell. Me, I just burst out in sobs–another way I’m like your mom, I’m sure. And then I collapsed into dreamless sleep. But I took a second to leave this note for the boys, in case they woke up earlier than I did.


And we all hiked down to the Capitol the next evening for the big victory rally. I wanted to be there to reclaim some of the outpouring of emotion I’d missed at the party the night before–the pictures made me cry all over again–but also to hear where this thing would go next. We’d been so ready to bounce back and keep fighting, to transform our grief into resolve. But it felt like that moment when you’re walking down the stairs, so sure there’s one more step than there actually is, and your knees buckle as you come down hard on a stair that isn’t there. In all the joy and relief, there was no clear path forward.

Not only did we defeat the amendment, but we won back DFL majorities in both houses of the state legislature. It feels like the next logical step is to translate all this momentum and public consensus into an effort to fully legalize marriage, but I’m not sure that’s on the docket for the next session. There’s a kind of policy conference at the beginning of December, and I really want to be there. I’m also looking for ways to shift some of this leftover effort into a new project, maybe something to do with all the personal work on civil rights and multicultural justice I’ve been doing.

But this is what I want to say to you, at the end of this amazing, historic, victorious fight: Start dreaming. I’m so glad to hear your current post is safe and supportive–I can’t imagine how hard those months in Oklahoma must’ve been, in a branch of service that really hasn’t fully bought into the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I know you’ve suffered for your aspirations to be a soldier. And we’re all so proud of you for sticking it out.

But when you’re done with this part of your life, when you’ve had your adventures and realized your highest goals, I hope you come home. I hope you fall in crazy love with the one man who’ll make your heart whole, like mine has been these sixteen years. And I hope I can be there on the happy day when you marry each other, right here in Minnesota. I want to dance with you and your brothers and my sons, and hug your mother and cry, and wave you off into your brave new future together.

You keep working on your dreams, and I’ll keep working on Minnesota. I can’t wait to see what we make of them.



Closing Arguments

I’ve been working on the campaign for marriage equality here in Minnesota since March, and as I’ve written before, it’s the most fulfilling political, social, and activist project I’ve ever worked on. I’m a total addict to the amazing people and experiences I encounter every single time I put in some time, and I’m going to crash hard on November 7, even if we manage to win. I’m already getting the shakes. Last night, I asked my friend and co-trainer Scott, who works in politics for his day job, for a new campaign–I’m lining up a new dealer once Minnesotans United for All Families skips town.

MN United has built a campaign unlike any other, rejecting the messages and tactics that have failed in 30 states where anti-marriage amendments have gone up for a popular vote. While talk about the rights and benefits that attach to marriage, and how the denial of those rights amounts to separate-but-equal discrimination on par with civil rights fights of the past, are important to many supporters of marriage equality, they aren’t generally persuasive for people who are on the fence about gay marriage. So we’re having personal conversations with voters, using our own life stories, to make it clear that marriage is about love and commitment, no matter the gender of the partners. These stories are powerful, and they change hearts and minds and votes.

Only four days remain until the election, so I’m going to share the core of the conversations I’ve been having with you today. If you’re in one of the four states voting on marriage equality, I hope that this strengthens your resolve if you’re a supporter, and opens your heart to the conversation if you’re still undecided.

Our first walk as Mr. and Mrs. Banks, 5 October 1996

I find this amendment personally hurtful on so many levels. I have the great good fortune to be married to the love of my life, despite the astronomical odds that we would ever find one another on opposite sides of the world. And for the last sixteen years, we’ve had each other in good times and bad. I’ve rejoiced in the affection and the support and the million inside jokes and shorthand references that weave us closer, and I’ve buckled with relief into that tightly knit fabric of partnership in the times of crisis and grief. I think marriage is the best game in town, and I devoutly wish the same celebration and endorsement for every loving, committed couple who lean into the unknown future together.

All of this hinges, though, on one critical fact: my beloved was the opposite gender. When we fell madly in love, we had many obstacles to overcome so we could be together, but the legal right for me to marry him and secure his immigration status so we could start our new life together was not one of them. We obtained a K-1 “fiance” visa that allowed him to enter the country and get on the fast track for a green card by submitting evidence of our marriage. We went through the separate interviews to assure our marriage wasn’t a scam.

But I’m bisexual. There was no guarantee that my soulmate would be a man. And if he weren’t, the last sixteen years–all the love, all the progress, all the family we’ve built–disappear. That one thought blows through my gut like an icy wind and fills me with unbearable sorrow. I cannot imagine the pain and devastation of being told I couldn’t marry and be with my beloved.

And I look at my amazing, difficult, brilliant, gorgeous, perfect sons, and I marvel even more. We didn’t have to submit any applications or pass any interviews before we decided to conceive them, and not once have we ever had to fear that they would be taken away from us. We’re far from perfect parents, but no one has ever questioned whether we’re the best people to raise them. It’s assumed that they’re safe and happy and healthy and loved, and there’s no awkwardness when I introduce their other parent at school events or church functions.

Believe me, all this “traditional”-ness is positively mortifying to a weird, eclectic nonconformist like me. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. We didn’t set out to create a “traditional” family, and we’ve done everything in our power to the least traditional traditional family around. But we are very aware of our privilege, and there’s no reason in the world it should be reserved to our narrow demographic.

Marriage is an important but limited part of how I envision family. I’m a child of divorce, and even as an eight-year-old, I knew that my mother and father weren’t working out. I knew that marriage stood in the way of being our best selves, and I told my mom often as a kid, then a teenager, then an adult, that she made the right call. That divorce didn’t dissolve the ties of family, though–I’m still close with my father’s family, and I kept my birth last name as a second middle name when my stepdad adopted us years later. But I also watched my grandparents’ marriage, which started with my grandma saying, “I’ll marry you so I can get out of the house before I kill my sister. But if it doesn’t work out, you go your way, I’ll go mine, and no hard feelings.” It lasted 62 years.

We teach our sons that families come in all shapes and sizes. Of course, we didn’t have to work too hard to teach them this: they already knew it. They have friends who have a mom and a dad like they do, and friends who only live with their mom or their dad, or travel between their parents’ houses. They know friends who live with extended family, or foster parents, or adoptive families. And they know friends with two dads or two moms. All they care about is that their friends are as loved and secure as they are.

So I’m voting no.

I’m voting no because I treasure my marriage. No other word in our language and society so completely sums up the lifelong commitment and enduring love that I share with my partner, and it hurts to imagine being told that we didn’t qualify for that word by something we couldn’t change or improve. My marriage is strong, and no married gay couple down the street, arguing about bills and chores like we do, makes that less secure.

I’m voting no because I hold my sons in hope and love. I feel that they’re better people because we’ve taught them that every person is worthy of the same dignity, no exceptions. My dream for my boys is to dance at their weddings, and the only thing I care about is that the person they marry loves them as much as I love their father. I’m going to dance, it’s going to be Bad Mom Dancing, and it’s going to live on in infamy on YouTube, to forever embarrass them, like every good mom should.

I’m voting no because my understanding of the world’s faiths teaches me that the most universal truth among humans is to treat one another the way we would want to be treated. Whether it’s the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule, or the Confucian Silver Rule, this is held as a central tenet. We rarely follow the ancient scriptures that prohibit same-sex partners on other subjects; we acknowledge that they’re historical documents, and that society’s values have evolved since they were written. I want my church to have the religious freedom to marry gay and lesbian couples as our faith embraces as equally entitled.

I’m voting no because I’m a historian. I can see that the institution of marriage predates the Bible and that it began as an economic transaction to link families and secure heredity. It was not always a sacrament, and it was not always available to every heterosexual couple. It hasn’t “always been” any particular way. Marriage for love is a damned newfangled idea, relatively speaking. If you married someone not from your hometown, you’re already breaking “traditional” convention, let alone someone of a different church, faith, ethnic group, or race.

I’m voting no because I’m a teacher and a parent, and the health, safety, and wellbeing of every child matters to me. I can’t imagine the horror of waiting to know how the state where they were born is going to vote on whether they and their families are welcome. LGBT youth are so fragile already, under siege in schools and churches and media, and it’s a sacred trust we are given to show them that they can aspire to fully participate in society and experience the range of human love. I have great confidence that other teachers will continue to teach age-appropriate lessons, and that as parents we still have the greatest power to teach our children about morality.

I’m voting no because I’m a patriot. I believe in the founding principles of our country, especially the purpose of our constitution as a document that secures personal freedoms and limits government intrusions. The constitution should never be used to carve out a segment of the population and deprive them of the same liberties as others enjoy. And we certainly shouldn’t be putting rights up for a popular vote. Ideological conservatives have made some of the most persuasive arguments along these lines.

I’m voting no because I’m an optimist, and I believe our society is moving toward a broader, more inclusive understanding of one another. The less we allow race, gender, faith, class, and sexual orientation to cloud our vision of a common humanity, the more we will recognize that we all want the same thing. We’ve got a long way to go on all of those issues, but we can (and should!) work on them simultaneously. I reject the arguments of fear, division, and misunderstanding, and I put my hope in the journey we’re on toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Oct 31, 2012 - World Religions    1 Comment

Making Halloween Magical

I absolutely adore Halloween. I’ve been known to skip down store aisles singing “It’s the most…wonderful time…of the year!” at the first sight of skulls and crows. I collect Halloween socks and wear them all year round. I buy gothic lanterns and creepy wall hangings and ghoulish tea towels on clearance for everyday use.

Part of this is related to Halloween’s location in my favorite season, Fall. Fall is a full-sensory extravaganza for me: crunchy leaves, crisp nose-hair-tingling morning air, spices and soups, the acrid sting of a matchstrike as I begin lighting candles again after the hot, bright summer.

But Halloween holds more meaning for me than just memories of costumes and candies past. It’s also a sacred holiday for me and other pagans, marking the beginning of new turn around the wheel of the year. Because I follow the Celtic traditions of my ancestors as they intersect with modern neo-pagan practices, I call this day Samhain (pronounced SOV-han or SOW-an, NOT  SAM-HANE).

Celebrated by many ancient agrarian cultures as a cross between New Year’s and Memorial Day, Samhain acknowledges the conclusion of the harvest, the closing down of the earth in preparation for winter, and the liminality of beginnings and endings that allows us to perceive how thin the veils are that separate us from unseen worlds around us. The costumes and the lanterns play games with concepts of finding and evading spirits passing from one state of being to the next. Even trick-0r-treating, often maligned as turning kids into greedy monsters with eroding teeth and manners, reminds us of our obligations of hospitality and the sweetness of welcome on a cold night.

My own monsters, as Finn and Jake from Adventure Time!, ready to storm the neighborhood and shake it for candy.

As such, it’s a powerful time for magic in every sense of the word. The topsy-turvy nature of the night always reminds me to look to the children in my life for wisdom; they have so much to teach us about taking pleasure in the moment and finding wonder in the ordinary. And you can return the favor by taking Halloween as an excuse to open the door to simple magic so they learn the spirit behind the spirits.

If your family has experienced the death of any loved ones in the past year, Samhain allows us to commemorate their life and release them with love, rather than carry the weight of grief into the new year and prevent their spirit from crossing over peacefully. Obviously, this is a complex concept, but it can be symbolized in simple ways that teach kids that grief is natural, as is letting go. If your hands are always full of the past, there’s no room to grab the future, and a ritual of remembrance and release absolves us of the guilt that often accompanies fading memory. It’s nice to look at pictures and tell stories of the departed, then perform an act that symbolizes transition: blow out a candle, throw written messages into moving water, or break a small bowl or clay pot.

Halloween is also a good day for housecleaning magic. If a child has been having difficulty with distraction, negativity, or nightmares–or if an adult wants to banish more mature worries or problems–the energy of the new year can be a powerful “disinfectant.” Go from room to room, in counter-clockwise order from the way you would face as you walk in the front door, and pass a broom over doorways and windowsills. When you end up back at the front door, sweep all the negative energy out the door, say some creative words of banishment (e.g., “Get out of my house, you horrible no-good dreams/feelings/bills!”) , and let the kids slam the door.

Finally, it can be fun to teach kids about traditional divination magic associated with Halloween. Young boys and girls have been looking into pools of water or cutting into fruit on Halloween to tell their fortunes for centuries–that’s where bobbing for apples comes from! Spending some quiet time looking into a dish of water, mirror, or flame (safely, obviously!) often conjures hopes and fears for the future as you settle into meditation with an external focus, and talking about them works wonderful, everyday bonding magic. If you have a tarot deck, runes, or I Ching set, it can also be fun to let the child examine them and ask questions; let them offer their own interpretations and observations, and keep the atmosphere light. People are more comfortable going forward into an unknown future if they feel like they have some sort of influence over it, and even silly little scrying games can make us feel more empowered.

I hope you all have a wonderful, magical Halloween!

Oct 16, 2012 - Political Science    5 Comments

Say It Again

I’m an unashamed geek about politics, especially in election years. I can’t do math, but I can crunch poll and electoral college numbers with an idiot savant flair. I answer to the John Williamsesque election music like one of Pavlov’s dogs. And I’m not an armchair quarterback–I put skin in the game, every year.

But with only three weeks (!) to go, there are a few phrases that I’m ready to never hear again. So, in the few minutes I’ve got to spare before tonight’s phone bank (no, seriously, it starts at 5:30) and the second presidential debate, I thought I’d break a couple of them like balsa wood boards at a karate convention.

1) “Job Creators” — Can we consign this to the same scrap heap as “titans of industry”? Because, let’s face it, a kid who shits his pants is a job creator too. Cleaning it up was a job I didn’t have to do before, and now I do. If I had a tax break for every shitty diaper or milk spill or pile of discarded clothes that my kids “created” for me, I could afford to take a vacation.

2) “Middle Class” — Americans are positively delusional about their incomes. John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Statistics say $50,000 is “real” middle class, but we can’t even agree on that. Apparently, it depends on who you ask. Romney has indicated that he thinks of someone with an income of $200,000 as “middle income,” but that’s as false as a training bra full of toilet tissue. If you make $200,000 a year, you’re in the top 2% of incomes–that’s nowhere near the middle.

3) “Failed Stimulus” — There’s no such thing in America. We have Viagra, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a success. Is the economy still ugly? Absolutely. But who knows how deep the rabbit hole would’ve gone without the stimulus? I grew up on my grandparents’ stories of young marriages in the Great Depression. I’m incredibly relieved I won’t have the same stories for my sons.

4) “Traditional Values” — This one burns my ass all year, every year, but it’s like a bad chili dog in election years–causing pain and confusion on both ends. I’m just going to come out and say it: There is no such thing as “traditional values.” Your traditions are not my traditions; America’s traditions are not the world’s traditions. This term is a thinly veiled replacement for saying “I don’t like the way you do that.” It applies to almost anything, but especially sex, family, faith, and politics. I have long histories of mental illness, substance abuse, crazy hardcore work ethic, and Christian faith in my family. Doesn’t mean everyone should do things our way. In fact, I recommend against it.

5) “Pro-Life” — If you say you are, I almost guarantee you’re not. I’m far from the first person to point out that many “pro-life” people care about that fetus until the precise instant its feet hit the cold air. After that, who cares? Motherhood is a sacred institution, unless you’re poor, in which case, leave your kid with this exploited worker while you get your ass to a minimum-wage job, 12 hours a day, 45 minutes on the bus each way. Good education? Save up or play public school roulette. Safe neighborhoods? Whatever you do, don’t give those public sector workers any incentive to keep their grueling jobs, like health insurance or a pension. Do something wrong? Get thee directly to a corporate-owned prison, or better yet, to an execution chamber. These folks are pro-life like I’m pro-centipedes: they’re okay as creatures in theory, but if one shows up in my house, I’m gonna smush it into oblivion.

6) “The American people want…” — Don’t even finish that sentence, you. We don’t know what we want. Two Americans can’t even decide what to have for lunch, let alone whose economic or foreign affairs policies.

7) “War on Terror” — We have crushed Al Qaeda, but we will never win the war against terrorists. That’s because terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology–it’s like declaring war on hammers. And when we start using robot planes to drop bombs that may or may not land on the intended targets, we are causing terror.

8) “Debt Ceiling” — I’m not tired of this phrase because it’s misleading; I’m tired of it because it’s being used incorrectly. The general public has conflated the debt ceiling and the deficit, both of which have much less to do with our future economic health than the GDP or home sale numbers. Raising the debt ceiling does NOT raise the limit on our national credit card–it tells those who’ve lent us money that we’re going to pay for what we’ve already charged. And when the world is actually paying us to hold its money while our economy is still stalled, now is exactly the right time to indulge in a little deficit spending.

9) “Food Stamp President” — I hope Obama embraces this one like he’s done with Obamacare. Because when Republicans say that more people have been on food stamps under his administration, they say it like it’s a bad thing, which it isn’t. People were making so little money for so long that they qualified for the extremely low threshold for food assistance. Our president made sure they didn’t starve. Fewer food stamps means fewer dirty plates. Think about it.

Oct 10, 2012 - Psychology    9 Comments

Look At This

There’s no grey cloud over my head. There’s more color than black in my wardrobe. There are four playlists called “Happy Songs” on my iPod. I laugh a lot. I’m unfailingly friendly and polite with strangers. The boxes on my calendar empty out.

This is what depression looks like.

My hands clench hard, leaving an array of half-moons on the soft skin of my palm. My shoulders ratchet up. My Irish-pale skin blooms with uneven roses. My lips feel tight. I use shorter words, then no words at all.

This is what anxiety looks like.

I plunge my hands into racks of clothes. I can’t get enough of a certain song. I scan poll numbers for the troughs and crests that the patterns show me. I find a way to use specific words in every conversation, words that are stuck like burrs in my mind. I can’t stand cranberries. I close the door, turn off the lights, put on the fan for white noise, and wait for the world’s loudness brightness sharpness to subside. I click my mala beads through my fingers while I talk on the phone.  I remember everything.

This is what Asperger’s Syndrome looks like.

I snuggle and tickle my kids, and the other kids who think I’m the Cool Mom because I read them stories, and get down on the ground to play their games, and giggle at their goofy jokes. I work hard–harder than I should, sometimes–and I hold myself to exacting standards. I watch screwball comedies, costume dramas, and cerebral documentaries (or so NetFlix tells me). I make pretty things and give them all away. I send my energy to those who need warmth, healing, sympathy, celebration. I play with my phone too much. I read every day. I speak out against injustice. I do more than speak. I see characters and scenes in my head, but I can’t hear the dialogue. I love my husband and our millions of inside jokes. I check my blog hits all the time.

I take medicine three times a day, without fail. Some of them keep me heavier than I wish I were, but still I take them. I take my meds even though I feel great–maybe especially when I feel great. I pay attention to my moods. I talk to my doctors; I keep my appointments. I know what the inside of a psych ward looks like. I know it’s better to keep fighting than give up. I know how deep the hole goes. I try to be kind. I live every day in color.

This is what mental health looks like. It looks like everyone else. And it needs to be out in the clear light of day.

Oct 9, 2012 - Psychology, Sex Ed    8 Comments

Let It All Out

This Thursday is National Coming Out Day. It’s difficult these days to remember that being open about whom a person loves comes at a high price. It costs families, friends, housing, jobs, physical harm, psychological health, and even lives to be openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or even just questioning.

Almost everyone these days knows someone who fits into one of those categories, and by knowing that person’s identity, you represent–at one point or another–a potential risk, an unknown quantity. That person made a calculation, based in an algebra of emotional connection and human-hearted estimation, scrounged from past experiences, conversations, jokes, off-hand remarks, forwarded emails, Facebook posts, retweets, and a million spoken and unspoken signals. This equation spits out answers ranging from standing in the full light of exposure, to straddling an awkward threshold, to pressing flat against the shadows, barely breathing, praying no one sees through the grey mantle of disguise pulled tight around them.

And, from that equation, they took a risk on you. Every time that risk pays dividends of love, trust, and authenticity, it gets better.

Last year, on this here very blog, I came out as bisexual. It was the Least Eventful Coming Out Ever. In fact, the utterly underwhelming response–all kind and supportive, ye punters!–even contributed for a little while to my neurosis about not “having earned” the identity or label.

But in a discussion with one of the organizers at Minnesotans United for All Families earlier this year, I was surprised to learn that that (completely un)fateful blog post was hardly the first time I’d come out in my life. By the time I made my sexual orientation public, I was practically an old hand at revealing parts of myself I’d previously hidden for fear of rejection, punishment, disappointment, or harm. I’ve had more coming-outs than a 23-year-old debutante.

So here, in no particular order, are pieces of me that have spent time in one closet or another:

–I’m a witch. I know I said a while ago I was going to be more coy about this, as I have done when teaching religious studies, but frankly, you’re not my students (for all my professorial posturing). I studied for two years before I committed myself to this faith, and when I told my parents about my choice, my mom cried a lot. She said she’d known something like this was happening, but she’d hoped I’d fallen in with a “nice Eastern religion.” I knew things were going to be okay when she sent me goofy witch socks next year at Halloween.

What my mom was thinking

What I was thinking









–I’m autistic. As an adult woman, it would be incredibly hard to get an official, clinical diagnosis, and there’s nothing particular in terms of care or resources that a diagnosis would make more available to me. It was my son Connor’s Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis that unlocked this mystery. The more I read and observed in him, the more I recognized and understood about myself. I’m so much more functional and kind to myself (and him) than I used to be, now that I understand the patterns that govern my thoughts and senses. And it’s precisely because I am NOT what most people picture when they hear the word “autism” that it’s important that I’m out about this.

I can be this kind of autistic.

But I’m also this kind of autistic.








–I’m a pack rat. I blame being a historian. Papers and Christmas cards and books and kids’ drawings aren’t junk–they’re artifacts.

–I’m a rape survivor. I knew my rapist; I was dating him. He raped me twice, once vaginally, once orally. I didn’t even know the second one was rape until the support group therapist named it as such. I told no one for two and a half years. Apparently, coming out is easier in batches, because for my own crazy reasons, I told my parents about that within 24 hours of the Witch Talk.

–I hate Napoleon Dynamite and the game Risk. Don’t judge me.

–I’m the child of an alcoholic. If autism didn’t give me control issues, this sure as hell did. I didn’t have a single drink of alcohol until my wedding night, which came 10 months after my 21st birthday, and 4 months after I came home from a year of study in France. I wanted to be sure my personality was fully formed, and not addictive, before I even went near the stuff. I’ve never been drunk, if only because by the time I started drinking, I was big, Irish, German, and discerning enough to make getting drunk a very expensive proposition.

–I have an invisible disease. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in July 1999. It’s hard to know how I got this–debates rage about what causes chronic pain disorders. Most likely, the car accident I had 10 days before my wedding, which caused fairly extensive soft tissue damage to my neck, shoulders, and mid-back, triggered it. When I got to grad school, a doc at the health center put me on a tricyclic antidepressant for severe tension headaches. It effectively masked the developing fibro symptoms, until its lifespan expired and everything came tumbling out. For the practical implications of this on my life, I refer you to the Story of the Spoons.

–I can’t do math. I’m pretty good at arithmetic, even mental figuring, but from algebra forward, I’m hopeless. I’m not sure I’d call it dyscalculia, but I’ve never had it explained so I could understand it. I’m pretty sure I don’t care to try again.

–I spent five days in the psych ward of a hospital in August 2009. When we moved, my efforts to establish continuous care for my fibro and related depression failed utterly, and I had to go off all my meds, all at once. When I did manage to get back on something after an ER visit, it was too little, too late, and I couldn’t pull out of the tailspin on my own. At 5:00 pm on a Thursday, I emerged from our bedroom and told my Darling Husband that I had thought of nothing but killing myself all day long. I asked him to take me to the hospital. They doubled my meds, and I felt like myself in fewer than 72 hours.

–I can’t play video games. They stress me out to the point of panic attacks. And this isn’t just with the new immersive FPSs or rich-environment RPGs. I first noticed this about myself on Super Mario Brothers and Tetris. I’ve managed to pry this open just enough to enjoy the occasional song on Rock Band or round of Hexic, but even then, all my upper body muscles are sore afterward from the tension. Most of the time, it’s no fun at all.


So there: I’m out. About a bunch of stuff. I recommend it highly, if only so that the next time someone comes out to you about anything at all, you’ll know the feeling of standing on that precipice, waiting to step off. You’ll know how important it is to put your arms out and catch.