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(BHM) Slavery in the United States

Myth 150No one needs to tell you that slavery was kind of a big deal in the United States. It’s taught almost every year in American History classes, and at the very least students learn a lot about how it was ended when the Confederacy lost the American Civil War. Even still, while we know a lot about slavery it’s hard to really know it in a way that we understand just how poisonous it’s been for race relations in this country and how its legacy lives on in our politics, laws, culture, entertainment, even our language. Slavery is such a huge part of our history and yet its reality is incomprehensible. Most of us today can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a slave, or a slave owner, or someone fighting against the institution. But in order to understand black history in America, it’s vitally important to understand the foundation on which that history was built.

Hopefully, the best way to properly understand slavery in the United States is by defining its edges — when it started and ended; how far it spread and why; how it worked in practice; how it affected everyone it touched. We can gain a proper perspective of the institution and just how deeply it runs through American culture by these definitions. By knowing what slavery was in America and how it was codified into law through the colonies, we can form a basis through which all kinds of historical events can be tied right back to this practice.

The institution of slavery was one in which human beings from Africa were considered the property of others and forced to provide free labor on farms, in factories, businesses, and houses. While the slave trade in Africa had been going on for some time, slavery as a recognized institution lasted from 1565 all the way to 1865, some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment would be ratified in December of that year. During this time, 350,000 Africans were shipped to the United States and sold. This comprised around 3% of the 12,000,000 Africans forced to endure the Middle Passage, but it’s still a whopping number.

Think of it this way: the Middle Passage stole a population equal to the entire country of Belgium and forced it into slavery. Most of these people were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean, but the number of people sent to the United States? That would be equivalent to the current population of New Orleans, LA — or Arlington, TX. From that 350,000 came 4 million slaves in the United States by the year 1850 — or roughly the population of Los Angeles.

Slavery was common practice in the North American colonies even before the formation of the United States and its subsequent rebellion. St. Augustine, Florida was the first permanent settlement in the New World to include African slaves — as early as 1565. While many colonists considered Africans who had converted to Christianity as ‘indentured servants’ and gave these Africans their own land and supplies when the period of servitude had ended, legal distinctions between Africans and Europeans were being made as early as 1640. That year, a Virginia court decided that John Punch, an African indentured servant, would be punished by slavery for attempting to flee his servitude. The two European servants who fled with him were only given an extra year of indenture and an additional three years’ service to the colony. Slavery was legal in every colony right up to 1776, though by that time it was beginning to fall out of favor in the North.

This was because the North’s economy was largely industrial, so skilled labor was the most important thing there. The South, with its largely agrarian economy first dependent on tobacco and staple crops — then cotton with the invention of the cotton gin — depended on physical labor to sow and reap the crops for its cash. Since the sheer manpower needed to tend the fields would make profitability impossible for honestly paid laborers, there was a huge incentive to keep slavery around as much as possible. The Southern economy would not have grown so much, so fast, without its ability to treat people as property; that influx of money brought a lot of political influence and financial capital, which ensured the institution could be calcified in state legislatures, local laws, and business practices. Most Presidents between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln owned slaves, and of the few that didn’t none were elected to a second term. The whole “three-fifths of a person” you hear about in the Constitution was negotiated by James Madison of Virginia, who wanted slaves included in a state’s population by that ratio. Black people in early America were only counted in the political process as a means to tip the balance of representative power towards the Southern states, and they could not exercise that power directly.

Slavery was extended through the South with the Westward Expansion. The original Colonial States wanted to maintain the balance of power they had as more territories became states, so they lobbied hard for Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and other frontier territories to join their side. At the same time, a surplus of slaves in one part of the South necessitated a migration to the Deep South where more labor was needed. From 1815 – 1860, a “second Middle Passage” was devastating the population of slaves. Families were broken up, slaves were sold to horrendous owners, and abuses were commonplace. Even in states where the slave codes — laws governing the relationship between master and slave — forbade the mistreatment of enslaved Africans, the law was rarely enforced. At the same time, men and women alike were whipped one lash for each pound of cotton under quota they were on any given day.

Africans taken from their home and the descendents they bore were not allowed to read or write in most places. They were not allowed to practice their own religion or speak their own languages. They were not allowed to marry, and women were treated as sexual objects just as readily as workers. They were forced to adopt Christian beliefs, which were warped to justify their own enslavement. They were not allowed to own land or property. If they escaped, other states were bound by law to return them to their owners. An entire people were denied personhood for generations, legally according to the highest codes in the land.

Four million black Americans were considered nothing more than property in 1850. They had no legal rights. They couldn’t press charges for abuse. They couldn’t appeal their status. They weren’t allowed to read or write. They weren’t allowed to keep the culture of their ancestors. Their lives were entirely dependent on the whims of their masters. Rebellions were quashed quickly and retaliation claimed the lives of many innocents. Women were beaten, abused, raped. This happened, over the course of three hundred years, to a population equivalent to every man, woman and child currently living in Los Angeles. And it was done so that the people who owned the land worked by these slaves could make more money.

The legacy of slavery has a long shadow. There are six states in the United States with more than 25% of its population comprised of black Americans, and they’re all former slave states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina, Alabama. Of these six states, four of them are in the top 10 for state imprisonment rates — and imprisoned felons are one of the few classes of people in the US where slave labor is essentially legal. These states also have fairly strict disenfranchisement and voter ID laws, preserving the historical barrier of black citizens from participating in the political process of the states they call home.

This is the foundation of racial relations in the United States. For three hundred years, most black Americans were considered not people, but property. Even the freemen among us were considered inequal in the eyes of the law and could not count on its protection. During that time, we were subjected to systemic cultural erasure, legally-codified abuse, backbreaking labor, disenfranchisement, dehumanization, rape, murder, the dissolution of families, the denial of education and opportunity. And while we’ve come a long way since then, the spectre of this period in our history still haunts us today, in just about every aspect of our lives.

There’s a reason many black Americans are angry and disillusioned with the idea of American exceptionalism. Our history is a direct refutation of the idea everyone has access to the American Dream, that anyone can ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ to achieve anything they want. We have first-hand historical experience telling us this is not so. It’s no surprise to us when a police officer is acquitted for murdering black Americans in cold blood. It’s no surprise that income inequality and government policies disproportionately affect people of color. This is the way it’s always been, since before there was a United States. And even today, there are people who will deny these facts, deflect and dismiss them, instead of sitting with the reality of them.

The descendants of the people who have benefitted from slavery are still reaping the benefits of racist laws, bigoted practices, unfair institutions, generational wealth and access. While they’ve done nothing to build these injustices, their denial of them ensures they’re perpetuated down to this day. Until we can look at the reality of slavery and its long, long legacy, we’ll continue to ignore the pain it causes even now.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2019 in Politics

 

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It’s Black History Month!

Myth 150I honestly don’t know if Black History Month is a big deal to anyone who doesn’t have to learn about it because it’s a whole section of their American History class. Being educated in a predominantly black city, I was taught about the usual black American luminaries year after year — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. But even then, comparing what I learned then to what I know now, it feels like a shallow version of the true history of my forebears. We talked about the Underground Railroad, but we didn’t talk about the conditions that made it necessary, or made Tubman so brave when she kept going back to the South to lead slaves to freedom. We learned about King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but we never learned about the event surrounding it — a march on Washington to protest the brutal Jim Crow laws that kept black Americans in the South oppressed one hundred years after slavery ended. Today, Black History Month feels more like a feel-good opportunity for companies to flout diversity than anything with meaning or weight.

It’s become increasingly important to me to reconnect with my culture and history, because it’s an indelible part of me. I am a reflection of that history in the eye of everyone who sees me, and if I’m going to be defined by that I should really know the truth of what I represent. I want to know more than the basic bullet points of what’s come before me, the flattened caricatures of the people who have made an impact. I want to dig into the long history of struggle, resilience, and cruelty that ties me to the place I and people like me have been assigned in our society.

So this month I’d like to take up a project of studying the bits of black American history that I’ve always wanted to know more about; the people who have contributed to our history but have been overlooked or mischaracterized; and the concepts that have persisted from our arrival in the United States some three hundred years ago to our fractured, angry time in the present. For me, it’s important not just to learn more about my history; I must also find a way to make sense of it, to connect it to my life today. History is only worth anything if it gives us perspective on our world and gives us the tools to plot a way forward.

The Writing Desk will be given over to this project all month. I’ll study up on the Atlantic slave trade that marked the arrival of our ancestors; the aftermath of the Civil War and how racial oppression was codified by laws and business practices in the South and North of the United States; the civil rights movement of the 60s, the Black Pride movement of the 70s, and all the things that haven’t changed since then. I’ll report back here with the things that I find most interesting, and hopefully provide a different perspective on black history that might make it more interesting for others, too. I’ll do my best to present facts without too much subjective interpretation, but ultimately this is a personal journey for me and I’ll include my personal thoughts as well.

So what’s the deal with Black History Month anyway? It’s a surprisingly recent event with surprisingly old roots. It was first proposed in 1969 by black educators and clubs at Kent State University, and celebrated for the first time one year later. In six years, it was a widespread practice within schools, cultural and community centers, and was recognized on a national level by President Gerald Ford during his speech for the nation’s bicentennial. From there, it was picked up by the United Kingdom in 1987, Canada in 1995, and Ireland in 2014.

It’s a trip that this is so new — only less than 50 years old. The precursor to Black History Month was “Negro History Week”, though, an initiative thought up by black American historian Carter G. Woodson — widely regarded as the “father of Black History”. Negro History Week was meant to be the second week of February, since that happens to fall on the birthdays of Abe Lincoln (the 12th) and escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass (the 14th). From the jump, Woodson wanted to make the week a coordinated teaching of black Americans’ contributions to American history among the nation’s public schools. It was picked up in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Baltimore and Washington DC before spreading out from there. Over the decades, it increased in popularity until the trailblazers at Kent State carried it further.

Now, Black History Month is an American institution in our schools and its influence has spread to the rest of the culture. The celebration has been controversial for a while, with people wondering why we don’t include the contribution of black Americans (and Canadians, and Britons) all year ’round. Others wonder why we should even have a month dedicated to the history of one minority culture. I won’t get into those arguments, but I will say that it’s useful, even necessary, for me to dive into my own history. If an artificially-created month is what I need to do so, then I’ll take it.

I’m very excited to learn as much as I can over the next month, and I’m looking forward to our discussion about this overlooked section of American history.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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What I Learned This Month (January 2019)

Self Improvement 150January is usually dominated by two things for me: stress-testing the routines I’ve developed to fall into better habits, and Further Confusion 2019. The convention this year was actually pretty fun: I enjoyed myself at my panels, met a lot of really awesome people, and rediscovered my love of selling books (I was a relief volunteer at the FurPlanet table). As I get older, I become more aware of the ways in which I can stretch myself and which avenues for experimentation are just not going to work out for me. Parties and dances are for younger, more extroverted animals: give me a few quiet gathering amongst good friends and I’m much happier. The routines I wanted to build for the first month of the year didn’t quite fare as well, and that’s mostly because of the depression that blindsided me early and lingered on until…well, a few days ago.

I’ve talked a bit about it in a previous post from the month, but living with chronic depression is a bit of a balancing act. On one hand, you build coping mechanisms and treatments that make the depressive spells less frequent and less severe, to the point that you start to let your guard down. And on the other hand, there’s a small part of you that knows a depression could happen at any time, triggered by anything — an off-hand comment from a friend, or a particularly bad day at work, or a string of unsatisfying evenings at home.

Not that the triggers are ever really the things that, well, trigger it. The chemical networks inside the brain are so complex and mutable it feels like a global weather pattern inside my head, one that’s prone to fronts that will stall and dump a ton of rain where it’s least needed. Sometimes, conditions become just right for a storm. You get better at watching out for the signs, and the lead time you have to prepare increases, but nothing changes the fact that these storms are a fact of life and when they come there’s nothing you can do but hunker down and wait it out.

And that’s what January felt like, mostly — losing half the month to a storm that developed quickly but lingered once it arrived. I fell into a lot of bad habits during that depressive spell. I woke up and checked the Twitter outrage machine instead of meditating. I kept emotions bottled up thinking that I could deal with them, until I really couldn’t. I didn’t even try to do things that would make the depression less severe; I simply indulged a lot of my worst impulses. I could only tell how bad the depression was once I was out of it, and could actually hold a perspective that included other people. It’s not exactly fun to come back to yourself and find out that you weren’t holding things together nearly as well as you thought.

This month I learned that it’s important to carve out more time and space for self-care even when things are going well. A lot of issues that came up during my depression were lingering for a while, but I set them aside because I thought I could handle them — and I could, as long as the weather held. As soon as it broke, though, my ability to deal with things went straight to hell. So did, unfortunately, my ability to handle disagreements in a measured way. I’ve learned that while there’s value in not sweating the small stuff, for folks like me it’s also important to know there’s no such thing when you’re stuck in a depression.

I’ve also learned that my skewed perspective in depression can make it very easy for me to catastrophize criticism, which makes me hyper-defensive. So much of my anxiety is wrapped up in how I’m perceived by the people whose opinions matter to me — managers at work, friends and colleagues I admire, even you, dear reader. I want to present an image of this deep thinker who is earnest and strives to live his life according to Buddhist principles, but in reality I’m…just as selfish and prone to cognitive biases as the next person. I’ve had this deep and abiding fear since childhood that if anyone ever got to know “the real me” they would hate it and leave, and I suppose that never went away. In a depression, if someone criticizes me, even gently, I hear “I’ve learned something about you that I don’t like so you’d better change it or I’m out.”

This is not, I know, what my friends are saying. I can even understand that to a degree in the throes of depression, but it’s impossible to check that first panicked reaction. The instinct to PRESERVE MY IMAGE overrides any better, rational response. I know that I should care less about what people think, that I should be true to myself, and that part of the Buddhist practice means being as clear and honest as possible. I’m working to dismantle the thought patterns that were built to survive my childhood, and making progress. But when I’m unable to cope, they’re still there, deep down. There’s more work to do.

Through it all, I’ve also thought a lot about writing and what kind of stories I want to put out there. Thinking a lot about Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels, and what makes them so good. How I can incorporate the things I love most about them (his characterization! His world-building! His crackling dialogue!) into my own writing. And also, realizing that it’s kind of essential for me to get ahead of my Patreon serial so I can actually put in some editing work as well.

All of this prepares me for a February of deeper engagement and self-reflection. I think next month I might go a little slower, but work harder to make the things I do that little bit better. I will also need to think about the things I really need to have in order to do the things that matter to me. Mostly, this will involve identifying my favorite means of self-sabotage and working against them whenever possible.

I hope all of you had a great month that taught you a lot about yourselves and the world! What was the best thing you learned since 2019? Let me know!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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We Need To Talk

Politics 150The season five finale of Steven Universe felt like a perfect encapsulation of what makes the show so great — it made a case for its themes and worldview while acknowledging just how difficult it can be holding to those views. Steven, and the family of Crystal Gems he’s built, have often struggled to navigate the labyrinthine paths of healing and reconciliation with humans, gems, and monsters they’ve come across but they have never stopped trying to walk that path. Steven Universe can be surprisingly dark for a children’s show, but that makes its messages land with that much more weight. The writers know how hard it is to have empathy for everyone you meet, even the enemies who want nothing less than your eradication. Fighting, the shows says, is necessary sometimes to protect yourself and the people you love. But you should never, ever lose sight of your true goal: to change the minds of the people you disagree with, to find a way towards peaceful resolution.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, Steven Universe is an animated show about the titular half-human, half-alien boy as he comes of age in an idyllic beachside town. His father is a washed-out rocker who now owns a car wash, and has ceded the bulk of Steven’s education to three genderless (but female-presenting) aliens named the Crystal Gems. His mother, Rose Quartz, was the leader of an uprising against a tyrannical galactic empire ruled by the Diamonds, mysterious but incredibly powerful beings who have set very rigid roles for everyone under them and seek to colonize other worlds to keep their empire perfect.

Over the past five seasons, Steven has matured considerably. He has dealt with problems with his human friends; helped repair the trauma endured by the Gems (his caretakers and Rose Quartz’s lieutenants during the uprising); eased tensions between oblivious, panicky townsfolk and the aloof aliens that share the town with him; and learned just how difficult it is to be who you truly are in a world that is constantly seeking to mold you into a category it feels more comfortable with. As I’ve taken this journey with him, I’ve found myself trying harder to understand where people are coming from and work with them from that perspective. It’s not easy — these days it feels impossible — but it’s also necessary. Steven Universe has given me, and hopefully a lot of the children who watch it religiously, a blueprint for emotional maturity that I’m not sure we can get from too many other places.

One of the many things I love about the show is the nature of its dialogue and how it presents its worldview. Steven Universe is not a preachy show, though it does wear its themes proudly on its sleeve. The Crystal Gems are a wholly diverse expression of femininity: there’s uptight, proper Pearl; tomboy-trickster Amethyst; mysterious, self-possessed Garnet. The culture of the Gems gives us an entire society of women with a kaleidoscope of personalities, body types, and stories without diminishing Steven or any of the other men populating Beach City. Personal and cultural disagreements between characters are handled promptly and discreetly; people talk and listen, truly absorbing someone else’s point of view while advocating their own. Most of the time, everyone involved realizes something they could do better, and commit themselves to doing it.

These days it’s really easy to paint people we disagree as inhuman monsters. On the right, any attempt to square injustices or correct harmful attitudes is met with “SJW” or “NPC”. Folks like us are viewed as hordes of weak-willed communists who won’t rest until white men are left with nothing. On the left, most who question the prevailing wisdom of social justice are branded quickly as bigots, Nazis, or hopelessly clueless and dismissed or attacked accordingly. The division has become so white-hot that any attempt to establish a dialogue is frequently met with derision from both sides. The time, it seems, for discussion is over; all that’s left is the fighting.

And I get it: our reality is far more complex and difficult than the world of Steven Universe. People of color, people of different gender expression and sexual preferences, even the economically disadvantaged — we’ve all been treated so badly for so long despite peaceful resistance, civil disobedience, voluntary separation, assimilation and integration, and so many other coping mechanisms that steadfast, unyielding resistance feels like the only option left to us. If we look to our history, especially in the United States, we see that often the only way to affect change is to disrupt the comfort of the status quo enough that there’s no choice. Eventually, things reach a tipping point where what’s come before cannot continue.

But it does, only in a different way. The underlying illness of anti-social, bigoted, racist, xenophobic thinking doesn’t go away. It merely finds a new way to express itself. Colonialism gives way to capitalist exploitation. Slavery gives way to segregation and institutionalized oppression. While one system is eventually recognized as cruel and inhumane, it is merely replaced by another one that is better on paper but not in spirit. The reason we have Nazis and white supremacists on our streets again is that they never actually went away — they simply changed the way they operate so that they can hide in plain sight. If we turn this tide back, society will change, sure. But we’ll have to keep fighting, and another layer of lingering, generational resentment will form the soil where a new crop of bigots can flourish.

Like Steven, we’re in a time where we have to fight in order to protect ourselves and the people we love from the forces that seek to eradicate us just for being different, for being ourselves and not the rigidly-defined roles society has set out for us. We cannot tolerate the callous disregard of another person’s dignity, right to life, or right to happiness. But we also have to remember that our ultimate goal is something else entirely: the end of a need for fighting. And we can’t do that without changing minds. That cannot be done through violence or total defeat. It has to be done through understanding the motivations behind these attitudes and behaviors, honoring the same impulses within us, and finding a way to shift perspectives so those impulses are put towards a more common good.

We’ll still need to live together after the fighting is done. The more either side uses these scorched earth tactics, the more difficult that will be to do. I’m not naive enough to think that we can just talk our way out of this current flashpoint, but I am hopeful enough to believe that more talking can ease the fighting and build a better foundation for whatever peace can be found here. If we are to take up the mantle of the social justice warrior, we have to have a better sense of what being a warrior means. We’re not seeking the end of our enemies; we are seeking the end of enmity. Part of that work is finding a way to purge ourselves of the hostilities we harbor, even to the people (and yes, they are still people) who have done and said horrific things. That is not an easy thing to do. It might take us our entire lives. But if we don’t want to end up right back here in 50 or 60 years repeating this cycle, it’s what we must do. Anything less is a kind of social insanity, repeating the mistakes of our history with the full expectation that things will turn out different this time.

I’m exhausted being angry all of the time. There are still people I can’t talk to because I know they’re not speaking in good faith; when you know someone is manipulating communication for their own ends, there’s no solid foundation with which to build a relationship. There’s simply no way to trust them. I just have to disengage and hope that they can find their way through some other means. But I try very hard not to write someone off if I can help it. No one is too far gone that they can’t come around. No one is irredeemable. I have to believe this, because I would want someone else to believe this of me. We all want to be accepted, forgiven, embraced. Think about what it would take for a Trump (or Hillary) voter to mend your relationship; use this as your North Star. Even though we might get lost in the fog of war for a time, trust that it’s still there. Always move towards it. Never lose sight of it. It may take an impossibly long time to get there, but any step we can take is a good one.

 

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Depressional Confessional

Myth 150I like to think I’m a pro at being depressed. Some of my earliest memories as a kid, looking back, suggest to me that I’ve had severe depressive episodes all the way back to elementary school. One particular experience I had in middle school, now that I think about it, had to have been an emotional breakdown. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to recognize the shifting weather in my brain much the same way a village elder can sense a storm coming in their bones. It’s not any one thing — it’s a bunch of small things that point to a vague, indescribable feeling that my brain is fixing to turn sour.

There was an inkling last Tuesday that my mind was curdling. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try anyway. My depressions typically start with an increased paranoia and some obsessing — it’s like my brain is catching on a thought that it keeps circling back to. The thought itself can be anything from “I’m fat and broken” to “All of your friends think you’re lame.” but the effect is the same. It’s a whisper underneath the usual chatter that I can’t help but listen to. It starts to color my interactions with other people. I start to get really…nervous.

My experience with long-term depression is that this voice never really goes away, but you learn to accept it and move on with your day. There are some times, though, where the coping mechanisms you’ve built begin to fail and your ability to accept this voice becomes more difficult, requires more concentration. Over the course of hours and days, the constant refrain saps your energy and other things begin to slip. You’re a bit less patient with the people you meet. You don’t have enough willpower to make good choices. You begin to beat yourself up about the things you do to perpetuate the spiral. Your perspective gets skewed; the voice is joined by other voices, happy to remind you about every failing you have or every big mistake you’ve made. Eventually, you just collapse. You can’t fight your own brain any more, and you’re back in the pit.

The worst part about the whole process is that I’ve been through it often enough to recognize it, to know that this is the manifestation of a chemical imbalance in my brain. The knowledge doesn’t stop it from happening, and that’s its own kind of frustration. You see people with better coping mechanisms, or no inkling of the problem, and it makes me wish that I didn’t have this broken brain that required me to put so much energy into just managing to be a functioning adult. You try to eat right, you try to get enough sleep, you exercise, you take your pills — and sometimes, that’s still not enough. There are still days, weeks, months that disappear into a black void.

When I’m in the worst of it, it feels like there’s no possible way for other people to understand what this feels like. A lot of folks see depression as having no energy, or being unable to feel happy, or being a lump on the couch. What isn’t seen is all the mental work that goes into trying to get off the couch, or scrounging for enough energy to get things done, or maybe to keep from crying at work for no reason. The shut down isn’t necessarily from a lack of spoons; the spoons are being eaten up to put on clothes, have a conversation with someone else, to smile. The energy we have is being depleted by an internal process that most never see or experience. Depression isn’t laziness or lethargy: it’s exhaustion.

Thankfully, mindfulness training and therapy has taught me to recognize these stretches for what they are, and experience has given me a toolset to use so I can mitigate the “damage”. It’s easier for me to push through when I get depressed, so I can go to work and take care of chores and even try to keep up meditation and exercise. The pit isn’t as deep as it used to be, and I can find my way out of it a bit more quickly. I’m grateful for that, even when I wish I didn’t have to fall into it at all.

But that’s not something within my control. Depression is a disease. For some of us, it only happens once or twice after a big change. For some, the cycle can give us years where we never have to think about it. For me, it’s a constant factor in my everyday life. Every thought — especially any negative one — has to be tested. Is this depression? Is this legitimate? Do I feel as bad as I do because I should, or because of this illness?

It’s a hard thing to accept, but I’m working on it. Even though I feel as if I’m clambering up out of the pit now, I know that it’s possible for me to slide back into it again. When I get out, I know that there’s another pit up ahead waiting for me. Despite my best efforts, I will fall again and again and again. But I have trained myself to see them, to navigate around them, to climb out as best I can when I fall in. And I have a support network of friends and professionals that I can trust to have my back. That’s something a lot of us don’t have, and words can’t describe how grateful and lucky I feel when I think about it.

If you’re dealing with depression, please know that you are not alone. Please know that you won’t feel this way forever. Please know that with patient persistence, you can build coping mechanisms that will make the depressions shallower and less frequent. Maybe they can’t go away completely, but at least you can weather them. Your strength and resilience is better than you know. It helps me when I’ve fallen in and can’t see a way out. After all this time, I have faith that there is.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Further Confusion 2019

Fandom 150Further Confusion 2019 is this weekend, and every year it sneaks up on me just like this. Lulled into a false sense of normalcy by the end of the holiday season, I start to get into a pretty good groove when suddenly the third weekend of January taps me on the shoulder to remind me of this crazy and wonderful event. Even though the buzz and attendance for the con has declined somewhat in recent years, it’s still one of my absolute favorites — and not just because it happens to be in my backyard. Though, if I’m being honest, it certainly helps.

FC really takes advantage of everything the revitalized downtown of San Jose has to offer. There are a ton of great restaurants, cocktail lounges, dessert shops, museums and attractions, and natural spaces that are wonderful all on their own. The convention itself has a killer line-up of events itself, from dances every night to engaging panels to fursuiting dance and talent competitions. The Dealer’s Room will have a riot of artists, writers, makers and merchants; I’ll likely be hanging around the FurPlanet table quite a bit there. But, like every year, I’ll be on a few panels that I hope I’ll see you at if you’re attending. Here are a few of the highlights for each day of the con!

FRIDAY, JANUARY 18TH

Titanium Tea (1:00 PM)Marriott/Los Gatos Suite
My friend Watcher Tigersen will be pulling out some special stops for this 30th edition of Titanium Tea! It’s a wonderful way to settle into the convention; a lot of people come through for the special brews, to share their own favorite teas, and to chat with friends new and old alike. If you like good tea and great company, I highly recommend this.

Beta-Reading for Beginners (3:00 PM)Marriott/Almaden Room
Almost every writer these days has a small group of folks they rely on to catch flaws in a story before it’s submitted for publication. These unsung heroes are called “beta readers”. If you’re unfamiliar with the practice, or have been curious about how beta readers are used by other writers, this is the panel for you! Join me, Watts Martin, and Brandy J. Lewis as we discuss how beta readers can really help your writing.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 19TH

Write Now! (11:00 AM)Marriott/Almaden Room
Kyell Gold and I have been hosting this panel for a few years now, and it’s always a blast! We briefly lay out the basic elements of a story and encourage audiences to think about how to put them together right then and there. Bring your notebook or laptop; we’ll be writing and sharing our work afterwards!

Furry and the “Other” (1:00 PM)Marriott/Guadalupe Room
Over the past few years I’ve been trying to host panels that encourage furry writers to think about how their fiction can serve under-represented parts of our fandom, and this year I wanted to talk about how furry characters are often coded “other” and the effect that has on the audience who sees themselves within these analogues. This year I’m joined by Tonya Song (a Native American/Mexican activist, writer, and musician) as well as Brandy J. Lewis (post-human/furry author) to talk about how furry fiction can help us empathize with people who have totally different experiences from our own.

Adult Furry Writing (4:30 PM / 18+ Only)Hilton/Santa Clara Room
I’m not on this panel, but I make it a point to go every year if I can! Kyell Gold, The Pen Drake (my husband) and Teiran discuss the particular challenge of writing furry scenes and stories with adult themes. Sex (of course), violence and other sensitive topics can be quite different when a furry dimension is added, and some of the most experienced members of our writing community will be here to chat about it!

Dear Author (10:00 PM)Marriott/Willow Glen III
The Pen Drake and Teiran of FurPlanet are joined by esteemed author Mel. White to talk about the most common mistakes editors and slush pile readers see in furry submissions, and what you can do to avoid them! Since it’s late at night, the panelists are likely to be a little punchy — which means this will be wonderfully silly. I always look forward to these loopy late-night sessions!

SUNDAY, JANUARY 20TH

Condemning Nazis (11:00 AM)Marriott/Willow Glen I-II
One of the things the alt-right and alt-furry likes to do is confuse the issue of what they’re about. Make no mistake: these groups are full of racism, xenophobia, bigotry and fascist thinking. Ember will be hosting a panel discussing the history of the Nazi Party, its goals, ideals and methods — and how these groups are putting those into practice in the modern day. The more we know about this, the better able we’ll all be to clean our own houses.

Clarifying Your Life for Writing (5:00 PM)Marriott/Willow Glen III
Most of us have full-time jobs or school, social engagements, familial obligations, relationships, and all kinds of other things to take care of through any given week. It can be murderously difficult to find the time and energy for writing, even if you hope to make it a career someday! While I’m still working to develop my own writing practice, I’ll be talking about the things I’ve learned with Watts Martin — a deeply experienced writer in his own right who also has to juggle the hectic demands of modern life.

Unsheathed Live! (10:00 PM / 18+ Only)Marriott/Guadalupe
The convention podcast is back for another year with Kyell Gold and The Pen Drake! It’s a loose discussion about writing in the furry fandom, favorite (non-)alcoholic drinks, questions from the audience, and general silliness that has served as my personal “closing ceremonies” for a few years now. I LOVE this panel, and I hope you’ll take some time out of a room party to join us!

I’ll be all around the convention and downtown San Jose, most likely starting on Thursday. If you’re heading to Further Confusion, I hope to see you there!

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2019 in Furries, Pop Culture, Writing

 

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Building A Better Buddhist in 2019

Buddhism 150If there is one thing in 2019 we are sorely in need of, it’s more compassion and empathy. I know this has been the rallying cry of many different corners of our society for a while now — some have even weaponized the idea of civility as a means of shutting down dissent. But look at where we are these days. On the right, people are trying to justify breaking up families of migrants and abusing children in the name of national security; creating hardship for thousands of government workers so we can spend billions on a wall that no one wants; and indulging in a culture of bigotry against any minority you’d care to name. On the left, we’re engaging in the usual infighting between groups that have problematic perspectives; alienating well-meaning but ignorant people who just need guidance; and rejoicing in the suffering of people we’ve deemed truly deserving. Our social discourse has become so consistently, exhaustingly hateful that it’s hard to see any chance of reconciliation.

I understand why this is so, and I don’t want to give the impression I’m drawing a false equivalence here. What the current administration is doing, aided by the Republican Party and its base, is reprehensible and in no way the same thing as some of the worst tendencies of the left. But it feels like we in the liberal sphere have focused so much on hating the perpetrators of these atrocities that there’s no more room for us to feel compassion for its victims. The anger we feel is indeed fuel for the sustained fight we’ve engaged in for the past two years, but more and more it feels like this has come at a cost.

This year, one of the main things I wanted to focus on is being a better Buddhist — but what does that mean? Well, my particular Zen is one that prioritizes comfort and connection. I prize these things because I know how difficult it can be to change, and in order for people to make the adjustments we ask of them they need to feel comfort and support while doing so. Most of us flinch away when someone brings up one of our negative qualities, and the instinct to get defensive is so deeply rooted it can be impossible to deny it. So many of us can’t distinguish between a criticism of certain behaviors and a criticism of who we are as people; our self-identity is so deeply tied to our habits and beliefs we think of them as one and the same.

It takes empathy to translate that tendency in ourselves towards other people, to imagine how we would feel in someone else’s situation. If, for example, someone roasted us on Twitter for something we’ve said and any apology we could make just makes the situation worse, wouldn’t it be hard for us to resist the urge to defend ourselves? Maybe we’d double down on the behavior we think isn’t a problem. Maybe we’d call the whole affair silly and insubstantial. Maybe we’d chalk up the “drama” to “haters” who have nothing better to do than bring others down. Social media has been little more than an ideological battleground for years; in order for effective dialogue to happen, we have to shift our paradigm away from war and towards something else.

That is admittedly not easy. I know I still have this knot in my stomach when thinking about people I know who have voted for Trump, and I get intensely frustrated with people who don’t understand why issues like Black Lives Matter are so important to me. I haven’t been able to engage with many people about the news of the day because it genuinely makes me too upset and angry. Over the past two years, I’ve noticed my social circle get smaller and my general mood become more withdrawn and suspicious. I don’t want to be that person.

So it’s time to open myself more, and encourage others to do the same. This doesn’t mean engaging with people you know are acting in bad faith, or wasting your time with people who aren’t ready to entertain the idea that change might be needed on their part. But I think we could do a better job of filtering between the hostile and the merely ignorant, and I think it’s worth the time and effort it takes to educate our allies towards nuances they may have a blind spot towards. If we truly believe that our values are the right ones, then finding better ways to explain them or convince others to prioritize them is one of the best things we can do to help them spread.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is one of the books that really made me take a good, long look at my behavior and a fundamental flaw in my perspective that caused the less desirable aspects of it. There are so many things that I can’t tolerate within myself, and that self-judgement closes emotional doors that would better serve me if they were open. Learning to accept people and situations as they are can help us become less angry, see things more clearly, and affect change more efficiently.

This not only requires empathy, but also mindfulness. Meditation is a bit more than just learning to be still in the present moment; it trains us to watch the pattern of our own thoughts and recognize when a particular framework doesn’t serve us as well as it used to. Armed with this self-knowledge, we can catch ourselves doing, saying, or even thinking things that solidify division and allows us to take a beat to find some other way of dealing with people that might get us closer to the world we want to live in. Acceptance of bad behavior isn’t excusing it: it’s putting it into perspective so that we can address it holistically, in a way that is more likely to stop it.

I know a lot of us are tired of having to moderate our emotions or check ourselves in order to make progress with contentious situations. A lot of us know that it isn’t fair to have the burden of being the better person consistently fall to us. It’s draining, and in a just world it wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately that’s just not the world we live in. We have to do what we can, when we can, to build that just world. Sometimes that means accepting an unjust situation while working to make it better.

This year I will try very hard not to get caught in that sense of outrage and despair. It’s not who I want to be. In order to build equanimity, I have to be mindful of my own tendency to dig in my heels and consciously soften my reaction when I feel it happening. I have to push myself to feel empathy and compassion towards the people who want to deny me and the people like me our basic dignity as human beings. If I don’t, then we will continue to resist one another and that disconnection will only deepen. Fighting the awful things that are happening in our world requires firmness and the willingness to say ‘no’, but it’s important to resist from a place of mindfulness and love. It’s so much harder, but I feel it’s the only way to really win out.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2019 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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