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(Fundraising) Foxtrotting for Parkinson’s

Self Improvement 150Parkinson’s Disease sucks. There’s just no escaping it. Like most neurodegenerative diseases, it can strike anyone as they age and there is no cure for it — just treatments that can help alleviate symptoms or slow the progression of the disease. While researchers have noticed a few differences in the brain scans of Parkinson’s patients, exactly what’s happening to cause the disease and why it happens is largely a mystery. The puzzling affliction gradually degrades the neurons responsible for movement in about five million people worldwide, and there will be 60,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States alone. As the population ages, it’s possible we’ll see that number rise year over year.

I know that 2018 has been…a lot. As a society we have lurched from disaster to disaster, leaving a huge trail of needy people in our wake. It seems like every day there’s a new Gofundme so someone can pay for much-needed medicine, or a Kickstarter for a passion project someone wants to get off the ground. There are Patreons popping up all the time, regular calls to donate to a political organization or candidate, the steady need of relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders or UNICEF. Over the holidays (and this close to the US midterm elections), that din is going to rise to a fever pitch. So many of us are barely able to keep up with our own finances. I try not to ask for donations unless it’s a cause I believe in because I know how much we’re being asked to support our communities. But I’m going to ask for donations now; help me raise money for the Bay Area Foxtrot for Parkinson’s Disease.

In the early morning on October 14th, I’ll be shivering at Coyote Point Park in San Mateo with a host of other folks for a 5K walk/run. Thankfully a whole lot of my coworkers will have my back; as a company, we’re hoping to raise $1,500 this year. My personal goal is a mere $100 — but it’s cool knowing that every cent will be going towards funding better treatments and research for a cure to Parkinson’s. The Michael J. Fox Foundation has done some pretty amazing work, and my company has been doing its part to advance research and awareness of this disease.

The Foundation has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research for restoring some function to the neurons that have been damaged by Parkinson’s; research for definitive biomarkers that will allow doctors to detect the disease with greater speed and accuracy; finding better treatments for symptoms suffered by patients; and organizing tools that help coordinate the efforts of the scientific community. This has translated to a deeper understanding of how Parkinson’s develops, developing new treatments to improve quality of life for patients, and making the R&D process way more efficient. But there’s still a lot to do, and that’s where we come in.

I get to run a 5K with my coworkers, and you can cheer me on by donating here: https://foxtrot.michaeljfox.org/bayarea/davcowan. Any little bit you can spare will help my team reach our fundraising goal and help the Foundation push that much harder for research, treatment, and eventually a cure. If you can’t donate right now, I totally understand. You can still help! Spread the word, point others to my fundraiser page, and if you’re local — come out to Coyote Point Park and join us for the Foxtrot!

At any rate, thanks a whole lot for anything you can do. Even if you’re not donating to this particular cause, anything you’re doing to make the world a better place is appreciated — from helping a friend in need to donating your time, money or passion to another cause that helps to ease the suffering in the world. Do what you can; even a drop in the ocean contributes to the power of the waves that comes to shore.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2018 in Buddhism

 

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(Personal) Thoughts From a 38 Year Old

Today is my birthday. It is also the anniversary of the first time atomic weapons were ever used in war, when Hiroshima was bombed on this date in 1945. I’m fascinated by this face, and I like to tell people whenever I talk about my birthday. I used to think I did this because it was an extension of My Brand (™) — self-deprecating comments, weird and unrelatable humor, random uncomfortable facts that no one quite knows what to do with. But over the years, as I keep thinking about Hiroshima and what happened to hundreds of thousands of people decades before I was born, I learned that this is just one of the ways I keep myself in proper perspective. I am celebrating myself on a day that reminds so many of unfathomable pain.

I want to talk (again) about compassion. Recently I’ve been reciting a version of the Bodhisattva Vow every morning as a demonstration to my commitment to my most important virtue:

However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.
However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

Learning to be a compassionate and kind person is my life’s work. I have vowed to dedicate every moment of my life, every action I take, towards spreading compassion and kindness however I can. Of course, I’m just some guy. I have my own damage and my own limitations that makes this challenging work. I may never achieve the kind of radical, all-radiating compassion that I want to inhabit. There are still people who tie me up in emotional knots whenever I think about them, and when my heart turns towards them it still hardens instinctively.

But that’s OK. I know that this is a learned response to intense pain I’ve endured in the past. In order to understand these difficult people and accept them, I must also accept and understand the pain that lives within me. When I feel myself becoming angry and unbending, I know now that’s a signal flare from the many scars I bear, calling me to tend to it. In order to properly heal it, I must learn to hold my pain with patience and love. When I can do this, I can see into the pain of others more easily through THEIR actions, and learn to hold theirs with the same patience, the same love.

We live in a time that feels like two sides are marshalling their forces for the total war that allowed up to 145,000 lives being lost through the most destructive act in military history. As we entrench our positions and collect our troops, we begin to think of the other side as abstractions, as extensions of their ideals instead of grasping, complicated human beings just like us. We call them The Enemy, The GOP, The Administration — we call their supporters fascists and racists and white supremacists. Make no mistake, these labels fit; I’m not saying that we shouldn’t call them what they are, now more than ever.

But at the same time it’s important to remember that they are more than these labels, just as we are so much more than what they call us. If we lose sight of their humanity, if we make them less real, we are priming ourselves towards inhumane actions. We are whetting our appetite to inflict more suffering, not eliminate it. That is a dangerous road. While dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima ultimately lead to the end of World War II, it also dramatically increased the suffering of millions directly, billions of us over time and space. We have lived in the shadow of that action ever since, and to this day we fear the time when just one of those weapons will be used again. If it happens, the world will again change into something we cannot recognize.

I think about the many articles these days that ask us to listen to the Trump voter or the white supremacist, or offers the reason for their destructive, hateful actions as mere economic anxiety. The reason so many Americans are falling into the trap of fascism is much the same that so many Germans did — a deep frustration about their inability to feel safe and secure with their families, and the mistaken perception that this is because of some foreign interest taking resources from a system that enables it. In order to break the spell these people are under, we must first understand the very human motivations that enable them to do such monstrous things. If we can do that, we can respond to it with the patience and love that we use to hold our own pain.

This is a very difficult thing to ask of people, especially when we’re afraid of what these people are willing to do (and have done) in order to claim a bit of happiness for themselves. So many of us have been through so much, and we have given our understanding and compassion so often and it’s meant nothing. Many of us are tired, sick, terrified. How can we be asked to be vulnerable enough to feel the pain of our enemies when they are also posing an immediate and existential threat to us and the communities we’ve worked so hard to build. I understand why there are so many people who reject out of hand the notion to keep extending compassion to those who have weaponized our principles to silence our protest and haze the issue. But I also feel that the only way to keep the proper perspective — to keep seeing these people as people — is to treat them as such. I’ve fallen into the trap of dehumanizing Trump supporters, and it’s made it so much more difficult to be the person I want to be because of it. I just can’t do it anymore.

That being said, I wouldn’t think about telling anyone else to try to be compassionate towards someone who wants to render them second-class citizens, strip away their basic human rights, who are completely fine with separating families and putting children in cages. We are rightfully shocked and angry about the abuses that continue to pile up under this regime, and I believe that the comparisons to 1930s Germany are apt. This is a very dangerous time, and we are facing very dangerous people who are dedicated to eradicating anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of what America should be. We can’t let that happen. We can’t allow these people to extinguish the hope of a compassionate society because we’re too worried about how much it diminishes us.

But we can fight in ways that allow us to uphold our own principles. What I would tell other people is to try to be as kind as you can. Kindness is in such short supply these days, and that, I believe, is the root of our problems as a society. If you can only be kind to your family, friends, and allies — focus on being as kind to them as you can. Fight the enemy, but be mindful that the fight doesn’t blind you to the necessity of compassion. The more you understand the people around you, the more you can tend to the needs expressed by their actions. All of us just want to be happy, and to feel safe. Some of us think this is a zero-sum game, that they can’t be happy or safe with us in the world, but we know better. The more compassion we share, the safer and happier the world becomes.

All we can do is the best we can do. I’m still finding the best way to walk my path, but I have traveled down the road of “righteous” hate and I didn’t like the places it lead me to. I can’t tolerate bigotry or willful ignorance, and I don’t think I can forget the things people have done to bring us to the state we’re in. But I can’t hate them anymore. I want them to feel happy. I want them to feel safe. I want them to be free from suffering. Because I believe that’s how all of us get out of this alive. That’s the future we work for. That’s the world we build.

I am so grateful that I’ve made it to 38 years old today. My heart is so heavy for the victims and descendants of the Hiroshima bombing. I worry about my country, gripped in the fear of the future and trapped in its trance. I vow to attend all of these feelings, to meet them with kindness. I vow to extend this same kindness to all of you, as much as I’m able.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2018 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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(Friday Fiction) Alvin’s Anomaly

Writing 150I really just wanted to write an urban werebear origin story, OK?


 

The phone rang quietly, but with a tone that split the silence of the bedroom sharply. A dark brown hand shot from beneath the covers, fumbling on the nightstand until fingers closed around the small silicon rectangle. They both disappeared back beneath the blankets, where a muffled voice mumbled. “Hello?”

“Is this Alvin Washington?” The voice on the other end was far too awake. There was a hint of urgent agitation that tugged the brain closer to consciousness.

Alvin flopped the covers over his chest with his free hand and sighed, glancing at the alarm clock. 10:45 AM. “Yeah,” he said, resigning himself to wakefulness. “It’s Alvin. Who’s this?”

“I’m calling from the lab at Kaiser Permanente. Uh, your results are ready and I wanted to go over a few things with you.”

Alvin blinked. Usually, lab results were dropped by email. If someone was calling, that meant something was wrong. He felt the tingle in his fingers and the dull throbbing in his head as adrenaline shot into his bloodstream. “Uh….OK. Yeah. What’s going on?”

“Well…uh…” the voice on the other end hesitated. “We got some really strange readings and…I know this is highly unusual…but I wanted to call you directly and ask some questions.”

Alvin scooted up in bed and tried to ignore the almost dizzying thumping of his brain inside his skull. “Yeah? Strange how?”

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“Are you there?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m here, sorry. I’m trying to…figure out how to say this.”

“Just say what you got to say, dude. Don’t just call somebody up and freak ’em out about their lab tests.” Alvin huffed, gracelessly kicking the covers down towards the foot of the bed. Now that he was awake, it felt way too hot.

“You’re right. Sorry. Uh, I guess it’s best to just rip the Band-Aid off. We found levels of iron and cholesterol in your blood that would indicate a life-threatening issue. Frankly, there’s no way you should be up and walking around.”

“Huh,” was all Alvin could manage. He knew something was wrong with him, but what he was being told didn’t make much sense. Ever since coming back from the field trip, his body felt like it was going haywire. His skin itched. His blood boiled. His bones froze. He was hungry all the time, and he ate until he was sick. It was hard to keep anything down. His head ached; sometimes it was a dull throb, but other times it felt like his skull was coming apart and his teeth were loose in their sockets. For two weeks, he had been laid up in bed, sleeping until the sun went down, stumbling to the store for food, devouring whatever he bought, smoking pot to dull the ache in his head and his joints until he could sleep again. It wasn’t any way to live.

His cousin took him to the emergency room two…no, three days ago now. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him, but they thought he might have contracted something from the nasty-looking wound he had gotten on the camping trip. A bear had gotten into the food and he tried to scare it off by banging two pots together. Instead, it charged. He leapt out of the way, but got tagged by a claw that ripped him open from forearm to elbow. It took 35 stitches to close. It still itched like hell.

“It’s not the only weird thing,” the voice on the other end continued. “We were very concerned about your bloodwork, considering how you presented to the emergency room and given the fact you were the victim of an animal attack. Uh…bear, was it?”

“Yeah,” Alvin said. He was having trouble focusing on the conversation. “So just tell me what all this means.”

“Can you confirm that the blood we received was yours and yours alone?”

Alvin squinted in confusion. What kind of question was that? “Uh…yeah? I was in the hospital, the nurse took like, eight vials of blood from my arm. If there was a mix-up it had to be you.”

“No, I mean…I…look, what I saw didn’t make any sense, so I…sort of took a sample and showed it to a couple of…specialists I know.” The voice on the other end got quiet, like he was whispering.

“O…K…” Alvin wasn’t sure where this was going any more.

“They found the blood had a mixture of human and bear DNA. I mean, not like, some cells were human and some cells were bear. Like, the DNA we took from the blood had genetic markers found in both species. At the same time.”

“What the fuck?”

“I know, it…that shouldn’t be possible. I’d like to see you.”

“Who the fuck is this?” Alvin had had enough. He looked at the number on the phone; it wasn’t one he recognized. “You have to be fucking with me. Did Shum put you up to this?”

“I don’t know who Shum is, sir. Listen…you can just meet me at the lab tomorrow, right? Just look for the tech with the brown and black lab pin. We can meet my friend at the cafeteria.”

Alvin sighed. “Look, dude, I just want to find out what’s wrong with me so I can get better. I’m not interested in…whatever this is.”

“This is about what’s wrong with you. I swear, I wouldn’t be talking to you like this if I didn’t think it was the best way to get to the bottom of it. Will you meet me?”

Alvin considered this. He would be at the medical center regardless, so if he decided that whatever this was didn’t smell right he could always find a supervisor to talk to instead. “Yeah, all right. Tomorrow. What time?”

“2:30. Please come alone, and don’t tell anyone about this. Not even your doctor.”

The line went dead before Alvin could say anything else. He looked at his phone in bewilderment. Trying to think through this headache was like wading through molasses.

He got out of bed, slow and grunting. He’d figure all of this out tomorrow. For now, he wanted to see what was in his fridge.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2018 in Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Politics) For The Culture

Politics 150The culture wars have been raging for a little while now, on all kinds of different fronts in so many different ways. We’re fighting about the idea of “white culture”, the cultural appropriation of Native Americans and black Americans, how to clearly and succinctly define what’s offensive about one thing while another thing is given a pass. The very idea of “culture” is such a nebulous concept that it’s hard for us in the US — the great melting pot country — to think about it in a way that conversations about culture make sense. I wanted to talk for a minute about culture as I see it, and why the flashpoints of the culture war matter.

So just what is culture, anyway? If we’re going to debate about it, we have to make sure we’re working from the same definition. Here’s one that I like: culture is “the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group”. It feels simple, yet all-encompassing, and points to just why it’s so difficult to talk about culture as a concrete idea. When something can be used to talk about the entire breadth of an entire group, it can be hard to pull back enough to see it all clearly. Most of the time, we’re debating something we can’t get an objective perspective on because we’re way too close to it.

A specific culture is easier to identify when the nation, people, or social group that claims it is relatively homogenous or well-established. That’s why we have a fairly good image of, say, Japanese or Irish culture and we’re less comfortable on, say, African cultures or various minority cultures within the United States. Africa is a vast continent home to hundreds of different groups that have existed for varying lengths of time, in different environments, with different pressures exerting influence to determine the rate of cultural shift. Minority cultures in America are made up of patches consisting of the most distinctive bits of home and the things in our host country that exert the most powerful influence. The closeness of so many other cultures means there’s a lot of bleedthrough; black American culture has been influenced by Asian-American culture and vice versa. In such a dynamic, constantly shifting environment, without the anchor of a widely-known history or a stable social niche, minority cultures can feel fleeting and ephemeral. But they are very solid and very real.

Let’s talk about black American culture, because it’s the minority culture I’m most familiar with. My culture stretches back to the days of slavery in colonial America; the constant pressure of racism has been one of its most consistent influences. As a Black American, so many things about me are political: the music I like, the people I date, the places I live, the jobs I strive for and ultimately land. But it goes so much deeper than that. My skin, my lips, my name, my hair — my whole body — is political. That influence from the “dominant culture” — the American culture of US exceptionalism, self-made men, chain stores and cowboys — has shaped my culture in ways both subtle and explicit.

So much of black American culture is rooted in a response to the pain of our history and the ongoing mistreatment we endure from the institutions that are supposed to look out for us. Hairstyles like Afros, dreadlocks, and braids that center our natural texture are an attempt to reclaim our self-esteem after centuries of being told we’ll never achieve an American standard of beauty. Our music — blues, hip-hop, rap, and rock — are expressions of the tension we hold within us and feel steady through our lives every day. Our dances can be linked through the decades all the way back to the celebrations and rituals of our ancestors, the meanings of which have been forgotten but the movement of which we have retained. Despite being ripped from our home and forcibly separated from our culture, our ancestors found ways to hold on to what mattered to them and express them in new ways.

Black Americans aren’t the only minorities who’ve done this. Native Americans are fiercely protective of their culture after being systematically dismantled by European settlers and ultimately perverted by descendants who want to identify with something “exotic” but also “real”. Asian-Americans balance the traditional beliefs of their native cultures against the pressures of American society to blend in properly. Latinx Americans bring their own history, experiences, preferences and relationships from Central and South America. I realize that these are all hopeless simplifications of these cultures, and that’s precisely why it’s so hard to have these conversations. To properly understand another culture, you have to understand so much about where it came from; not just the people within the culture, but their history, art, values, philosophy, and interactions with others. Just understanding the context of one aspect of it (like hair) could take much more study than the average person would be willing to put up with.

So, what about the white culture that the alt-right and other supremacist groups claim to care about preserving? Why is that such a bogus claim? Well, it’s because white culture simply doesn’t exist — not in the way it’s meant. Let’s refer back to our definition of culture: the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. What specific examples for custom, art, social institution or achievement could be classified as simply ‘white’ and refined no further? What kind of distinctly “white” expression is in danger of being lost? White Americans can trace their lineage back to a host of European cultures, the places that their ancestors emigrated from. There is English culture, Irish culture, German, French, Russian, Scandinavian culture. But “white” culture, everything that’s happened once the United States was formed? That is American culture, and it belongs to everyone who helped form it — from the European immigrants who formed the first government to the native Americans they displaced to the Africans they kidnapped and forced into slavery. American culture belongs to the Asians who were exploited for labor, the Latinx Americans who themselves descended from the messy, violent past of European settlement and native genocide, the Jewish and Pacific Islanders. If America is truly what we say it is, then the culture comprised of so many different groups is part of that — and that means no one group can claim sole ownership of it.

Culture, of course, is not strictly defined by race or nationality. Any social group can have its own culture, provided that the community that creates it is tight-knit enough and lasts long enough to develop a set of attitudes and expressions that can be passed from person to person. Those of us who spend a lot of time on the Internet belong to a culture; those of us who built careers in huge corporations belong to another. There’s comic-book culture, cinephile culture, wine culture, maker culture, gym culture, bibliophile culture. Our hobbies, professions and interests can each own their own specific culture, even though these tend to be fairly loose, obscure and relatively low-key. Most of us move through cultures all the time — the culture of our racial or national background at home, the culture of our professional career at work, various cultures online and in-person. Very few of us embody just one culture because as human beings we contain a multitude of thoughts, emotions and relationships.

So, if culture is so permeable, why is cultural appropriation such a bad thing? I have to admit, it took me a while to figure this one out. But I think I have it. Here’s a thought experiment.

Imagine you worked on something for a very long time that you felt was a direct expression of the deepest, most vulnerable part of you. It could be a novel, or a song, or a dance, or a computer program. Whatever it is, whenever you talk about it you’re shut down by most of your friends. Everyone you know discourages you from making it, telling you that it’s garbage or it doesn’t matter, or that it’s stupid and backwards. Over time, you’re forced to choose again and again — your friends, or your project. You want friends, but you can’t resist the call of what you’re creating. You can’t give up who you are just to be near people who don’t actually like you. So you become more isolated, and angry, and afraid, and that channels into your work too. And, after a long time of bruising work and rejection, your creation is complete, ready to show to the world.

Suddenly, those same people who were clowning you take a look at what you’ve done and decided they like it. So they take bits of it for their own — leaving out the symbolism you painstakingly weaved into each piece of your project. Some aspects of your creation are taken just because they look or sound nice, or because someone else decides they want it to mean something you had never meant. Over time, your work is everywhere, but the meaning behind it and the expression you hoped to put across is absent. The thing that meant so much to you is fragmented and distorted until it’s unrecognizable, subsumed by the people that never wanted you to make it in the first place.

That’s cultural appropriation. It’s taking an expression of someone else’s culture — something that wasn’t meant for someone outside of that culture, with no perspective of its history, meaning or importance — and deciding to use it in a way it was never intended. It’s stripping a deeply meaningful symbol of its meaning and making it a fashion statement.

I think this is why most objections of cultural appropriation come from minority cultures that have been persecuted by a dominant culture. Each culture will have different attitudes about cross-pollination or expressing an aspect of it within a different context, but for those of us with cultures that have been formed by enmity and repression, it’s a little hard to take when the culture of your oppressor decides that something that links you to your people is a fashion statement. The appropriation of a symbol associated with great pain and historical struggle can come across as further insult and belittling for the culture being taken from.

That can be a hard thing to grasp for people who don’t belong to a culture that’s been subjected to that kind of treatment, or where the wounds of history are allowed to heal. For many of us in communities of color, however, that’s simply not the case. History is very much alive through institutional equality and cultural diminishment; the same dominant American culture that dismisses our protests by finding fault in our culture steals the fashion, art, slang and self-expression generated by it.

This is a crude construction of culture, built by a layman so that other laypeople can understand a perspective different from their own. It’s by no means exhaustive or infallibly accurate, but hopefully it helps you understand what we think about when we talk about culture and why we say the things we do in debates and arguments. For those of us who have been marginalized for generations, our culture is a significant means of self-determination. It is a precious thing for us. For others who feel more comfortable with their social status, the pressure to belong or express a culture may not be understandable. I get that. Not everyone is going to take the cultures they belong to seriously, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be so flippant. Respecting the boundaries other people set for their cultural expression would go a long, long way towards building a harmonious relationship with them — and it may be the thing that encourages more open cross-cultural exchange.

 
 

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(Personal) Tharn

Myth 150It’s been a rough summer for me, anxiety-wise. The news is full of terrible stories from the current president’s administration in the United States, and it’s coming so fast the scandals just bleed together. Saying the President or his Cabinet has done something awful that threatens the fabric of democracy is like saying water is wet at this point — it’s hard to keep up the outrage and drive to do something when you feel like anyone in power won’t do anything to resolve the mess we’re in. Honestly, the best I can do is hang on for the 2018 midterm elections in the hope that the Blue Wave manifests and Democrats take the House and/or Senate. For now, it’s hard to know how we stop anything — even the atrocious Supreme Court nominees.

If political news isn’t bad enough, environmental news fills me with an existential dread. This summer has already been extraordinarily hot, with a number of records broken all over the world. Hurricane season has started, and there are so many people in island nations who have yet to recover from the last round of devastation. We’re seeing the first obvious effects of climate change right now, and these effects will only become more pronounced over the years. Here in the US, our government’s response is to remove all references to the phenomenon from all departmental documents.

Despite the fact that police officers are still killing unarmed people of color, we’re still at the part of the conversation where we need to convince people it’s a problem. People of color are being harassed in the street, reported to the police for anything from doing their jobs to using the community pool, beaten and killed through racist criminal actions; but we can’t seem to convince people that the racist rhetoric of the President and others associated with him are responsible for the rise in white supremacist terrorist activity. Newspapers would rather legitimize ignorant, irresponsible, bigoted thinking in editorials and human interest articles than hold the administration accountable for what it has enabled. Trump voters, the people responsible for this state of affairs, are still having their feelings centered while the poor and disadvantaged suffer horribly.

Most days, it’s more than I can take. I can’t look at the news because there’s nothing I can do about the knot it generates in my stomach. I can’t look at Twitter because my timeline is full of anger about the terrible things that people in the various communities I belong to are saying, or what the social media platforms are letting others get away with. It’s difficult to talk about something I love or promote what I’m writing when I see retweets for someone’s GoFundMe to pay for medical expenses, or the latest in jaw-dropping evil from the people in power. The idea of engaging in a world that feels so cruel, so aggressively and stubbornly ignorant, so inhumane — it fills me with dread.

I don’t want to be the person who looks away from the pain in the world and chases what fleeting, shallow pleasure he can manage while everything burns down around him. But it feels like this is what I have to do in order to stay sane these days. What good does it do to spread awareness about problems I could never hope to fix? What’s the point of arguing with someone who isn’t interested in understanding your experience, only shutting you up so they don’t have to feel bad about what they do? Why contribute to all the noise when no one’s listening anyway? Why try to save the planet when those with the actual means to do so would rather figure out how to build bunkers to survive the apocalypse?

It’s been so hard to see a way out of this predicament. Even if our current President is impeached and removed from office, the Vice-President is still a religious zealot who would do many of the same things but with far more socially-acceptable language. We still have an entire political party that enabled this disaster for the sole purpose of hanging on to power. We still have at least a quarter to a third of Americans who support what’s happening, who will refuse any attempts we make to fix this. We’re still just one bad election from having all of this happen all over again.

I don’t know what to do with that. I truly wish I had more faith in us as a species. I wish that I could be more hopeful about our ingenuity, our ability to come together, our resilience. I wish I could see us becoming a society that prizes intelligence and expertise again, that honors the sacrifice of personal comforts so that we can actually take care of the people in our community. But I just can’t from where I’m sitting. There’s always going to be a sizable chunk of people out there who only care about devoting themselves to their worst impulses, and those people will likely have the money and power needed to keep the rest of us from doing anything about that.

I’m tired, and I know that there’s a very long way to go before anything will be OK. I don’t know how to change the minds that need to be changed at this point — certainly not in time to prevent the death of our civilization at our own hand. It feels inevitable, and the only thing to do is decide what kind of people we will be when it happens.

I know how this sounds, and I want to be clear that I’m not giving up. I still write, I still try to be the change I want to see, I still help where and when I can. But the fatalism is something I’ve had to push through in order to motivate myself, and that kind of sustained effort takes a lot out of you after a while.

What’s strange is that this doesn’t feel like depression, though I’m fairly sure it is. It just doesn’t feel irrational to think this way; things are terrible, and those in power are pretending they aren’t, and there’s not a lot we can do to change that. Still, there’s nothing for it but to keep trying to make the world around us better. We can’t do nothing, even when it feels like anything we could do won’t matter.

That’s where my head’s at right now, and I know it’s not the best place. Still, I thought I’d write about it here just to put it out there.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2018 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Self-Improvement) In Praise of Mistakes

Self Improvement 150Mistakes are a fundamental part of the human condition — almost as much as our fear of making them. Because of the way we’re designed and the reality we live in, we’re imperfect creatures limited by our experience, perspective and the momentum of habit. It’s natural that these things would push us to do something we regret from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as we learn from our mistakes and apply those lessons to what we do moving forward, they act as a valuable tool for self-improvement. So why are we so often paralyzed by the mere possibility of screwing up, and why do we find it so hard to own up or forgive others for what they’ve done? I think it’s because we’re socially conditioned to think of mistakes as an aberration that we somehow have the power to avoid, and until we recognize that and reckon with it our relationship with our mistakes will be unbalanced.

It’s simply impossible to avoid making any mistakes at any point in our lives, but we all live with the unspoken narrative that we must aim for perfection and nothing less than success will do. As we move through school, we’re conditioned to learn that mistakes lead to lower grades and failed classes, parental disapproval, disappointment from your teachers, the limiting of future opportunities. We’re constantly under the threat of dire consequences resulting from our mistakes, to the point that it’s more important to study for the test than it is to actually absorb information. Even when we leave the gauntlet of testing, that template for life informs everything we do. Through a crucial 12-year period of our lives, a deeply seeded fear of being wrong is cultivated within us.

We walk through our lives terrified of being wrong or worse, being seen as ignorant. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned as a tech professional is how much energy is spent at work covering our own mistakes and deficiencies; instead of admitting when we’ve messed up or that we don’t know something (even when maybe we should), we forge ahead without stopping to take the opportunity to better ourselves. Maybe this inclination isn’t entirely down to our history. Maybe our managers or colleagues foster an environment where asking questions or addressing mistakes are an annoyance at best and career-ending at worst. Because no one makes room for our imperfection, we never think to give that space to ourselves.

So our mistakes and ignorance become a source of shame, something we have to hide. And when there’s a risk of exposure, we panic — the subconscious memory of bad grades, parent-teacher conferences, ostracization and ridicule seizes our lizard brain and short-circuits our ability to cope. There’s this implication of a “set mindset”, that we as adults should be fully-formed and know about anything we come across. If we don’t, then we’re failures; everyone can see the “F” branded on our foreheads. Because the state of our knowledge is frozen, we freeze when we learn our knowledge is incomplete.

We internalize the idea that no one will forgive us for the mistakes we make, or the things we do not know. We learn that we can’t forgive ourselves for them. And if we can’t forgive ourselves, we sure as hell can’t forgive other people. If we’re expected to know everything and get it right the first time, how can we expect anything less from other people?

So when the mistakes and imperfections of others are exposed, we try to make it as visible as possible so the offense can never be hidden or denied. We demand that they look at what their ignorance has led them to and apologize for it. We demand the most severe consequences — expulsion from our communities, the end of their careers, exile into the social and professional desert. We demand the performance of remorse, the acceptance of their punishment, the enforcement of their disappearance. But what if one of our mistakes was exposed in all of its ugliness? How hard would it be to reckon with it, all laid bare for everyone to see? How impossible would it be to deal with the personal shame and self-doubt while the harshest criticisms rain down from the people in your community? Could you have the presence of mind to construct the perfect apology, accept the hyperbolic disparagement of your character, submit to the exile demanded of you? Could you resist the urge to push back or deflect blame, even a little?

I’m not saying that we should simply brush off mistakes or ignorance — when spotted, they should be exposed. We have to look our flaws honestly, but we have to know that we’re trying to do so in order to learn the lessons we need from them. If we’re too paralyzed by fear of exposure and deep shame, there’s just not enough room for us to grow.

I should also be clear that not every transgression is a “mistake” or the result of ignorance. Some actions are the result of willful malice, and some people use ignorance as cover for the consequences of that. It’s a bad-faith tactic that must also be exposed for what it is. Acceptance of mistakes and tolerance of ignorance can be tempered with with the expectation that all of us be accountable for our actions and their consequences.

But we don’t have to make those consequences so drastic that honest mistakes upend the lives of the people who make them. We can allow for our imperfection while still working to make sure we learn how to be mindful of it. Accepting our own ignorance and capacity to really fuck up every once in a while softens the tension we have with our own flaws. We can learn to embrace the messiness of our condition gently, with compassion. We can extend that compassion from ourselves to others. We can forgive ourselves and other people, and in the space that creates we can develop into braver, kinder people.

I think it has to start with us, so I’d like to recommend an exercise that consists of three basic steps. One, think about the last mistake you made or the last time you tried to cover up your own ignorance. Two, accept the mistake or ignorance by stating aloud (or as publicly as you’re comfortable with) what it was honestly. Three, forgive yourself by saying “I forgive myself for my mistake (or ignorance). I accept my imperfection with compassion.” and then state what you’ve learned from it.

I’ll start. I often make commitments — explicit or implicit — to help people or collaborate but then end up being very inconsistent or late with my end of things. I can think of so many people who’ve been disappointed by this, and whose work has been affected by my shortcoming. I sincerely apologize for not delivering the things I’ve promised in a timely or consistent manner.

I also forgive myself for this mistake. I accept my imperfection with compassion. I’ve learned to be more careful about my commitments, and to work harder to do the things I say I do when they’re expected of me. I’ll do my best to be better in the future.

We all make mistakes, and we’re all wrong at some point. Demanding perfection from ourselves and others, or demanding severe punishments for mistakes or ignorance, only deepens the training we’ve received to think of our natural imperfections as something unacceptable. It’s an unhealthy mindset that leads to unhealthy actions and a bad relationship with our own selves. In order to be kinder, more fearless, and happier, we have to examine our ingrained response to mistakes and give ourselves (and others) the room to grow and change.

And there’s no time like the present to start doing this. What mistake or bit of ignorance would you like to forgive within yourself?

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Geekery) Serving Our Stories, Ourselves

Myth 150We don’t live in times where self-reflection is encouraged often enough. I mean, I understand why it feels so hard to take a moment to check in with ourselves and make adjustments where needed; making sure we’re living up to our own values feels awfully self-indulgent when so many people around us feel as if they’re under an existential threat to their existence. But even now, with the world on fire, it’s more important than ever to examine the narrative we’ve given ourselves to see if it’s helping us or holding us back.

I was blown away several days ago by Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special, Nanette. Like most Americans, this is my first real exposure to the veteran Tasmanian comic — and if she’s serious about following through on her decision to give up comedy, that’s a shame. The first 15-20 minutes reads like a retrospective of the material she’s known for, gentle and self-effacing reflections about the pain of growing up lesbian in small-town Australia. But then she declares that she might need to quit comedy and the set becomes something else entirely — a deconstruction of her career and the failings of comedy (and society) to heal the trauma endured by the marginalized.

One of Gadsby’s central arguments in Nanette is that repeating the story of her traumatic experiences in her routine has encouraged her to focus on the wrong parts of it so she can’t take the lessons from them she needs to. Worse still, when she shares her story that way the impact of them only serves to cement the shame and humiliation she’s internalized from being told that she was “wrong” at a very early age. What she shares with her audience stops at the punchline, which is only there to release the tension that’s built by talking about disapproval from her family and neighbors for being gay, or the confrontation she has with a gay-bashing man late at night. While the diffusion of that tension is fuel for her comedy, it also forces her to focus on the parts of the story that denies the closure she needs to make peace with her past.

So she gives us the full context of her stories and forces us to sit with the full weight of the tension she’s been dealing with her entire life. This is what it’s like for those of us on the margins of society, she says. All that pain and anger and confusion swirls inside of us with no outlet beyond the one we make for ourselves, and even then we have to diminish it, round off the sharp edges, and sweeten it up to make it palatable for mainstream audiences. Those of us in the minority build a life swallowing our own shame and anger in order to prioritize the comfort of those who’ve never had to experience it. Her refusal to do that any more, even in the space of a single stand-up special, forces us to reconsider the way we tell our own stories and the effect that decision has on us.

Taking ownership of our own story is one of the most powerful things we can do. In Nanette, during one particularly fiery invective, Gadsby says “There is NOTHING stronger than a woman who’s been torn apart and put herself back together again.” The latest pod of episodes for Steven Universe season 5 is an amazing example of how empowering it is to recontextualize the story of your past. By focusing on the parts of the story that gives you the most strength, you free yourself to choose what you pack in your own personal baggage.

After the latest revelation — that Rose Quartz and Pink Diamond are actually the same being, and that Pink’s shattering was staged so that the Earth could be free from the rule of the Diamonds — the Crystal Gems struggle to reconcile with the fact that everything they thought they knew about fundamental parts of their history is a lie. Rose, their leader in the revolution, is actually the “tyrant” they were fighting against the whole time. Garnet, the fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, takes it especially hard — Sapphire runs off devastated, saying that her relationship to Ruby was built on a lie this whole time.

In their time apart, both Ruby and Sapphire take the time to absorb this new information and consider what it means for them. Sapphire, in learning the truth about Rose/Pink and how she was inspired to fight the Diamonds because of Garnet’s (then) unheard-of fusion, decides to recommit to her relationship with Ruby. Ruby, on the other hand, decides to make a go of being her own person before realizing that the person she wants to be is the person that chooses Sapphire.

To celebrate their refusion, Ruby, Sapphire and Steven plan a wedding, and it’s the first half of “Reunited” (the season finale?) that serves as a tremendous capstone to their journey. Steven’s song, “Let’s Only Think About Love,” instantly lodged in my brain as a panacea against the panic inspired by the overwhelming litany of problems we have to face in this day and age. Garnet’s decision to focus on the parts of her new story that forges a connection becomes a rallying cry for everyone in Steven’s family to do the same. It’s a beautiful sequence that reminds me of how important it is to celebrate the love we have in our lives. Yes, there’ll be time to fight the evils of the world but we also have to give ourselves room to remind ourselves of what we’re fighting for. We fight for the ability to celebrate our resilience and our diversity and our hard-won joy. We fight for the chance to make sure others don’t have to fight so hard to be happy.

Both Hannah Gadsby and Garnet take stock of their lives and the narratives that have sustained them as a means of figuring out how they relate to themselves and the world around them. Gadsby decides it’s necessary to discard a huge part of her identity in order to move forward, while Garnet decides to remain who she is. Both of them come out of the exercise with a much clearer sense of themselves and their purpose, and watching them go through that painful work is engrossing, angering, exhilarating.

I’ve long been a proponent of setting aside my feelings on a political issue in order to try to meet people where they are; I still believe that the only way you get someone to shift their beliefs is by making sure they’re comfortable enough to be flexible. But at the same time, it’s so important to make sure we express ourselves in a way that asserts and affirms our humanity and our right to exist. It does us no good to perform as the meek and unthreatening minority when all it does is undermine our sense of self-worth; it’s not our lot in life to be the stewards of comfort for those with the privilege to look away from the inherent tension in our lives. Making sure we’ve taken care of our own stories, that we’re telling them in the way that helps us and people like us, allows us to connect in ways that are fundamentally important to our well-being and helps us erase the history of shame we carry with us.

That is worth so much more than the conditional approval of someone too fragile to be comfortable with diverse perspectives and the tension present in anything different. We’re worth so much more than that.

 

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