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(Politics) Mindful Resistance

Politics 150Ever since Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, MO I don’t think I’ve been able to reflect on our political situation without a mix of anger, horror or despair. It’s been tough to know what to do with these very difficult emotions even at the best of times; when the news cycle seems designed to draw them out of you multiple times every day, it can be almost impossible. Progressives in America have been emotionally and ideologically battered by the storm of Trumpism, and I think a lot of us have become unmoored from our principles and ability to cope with the constant thundering of awfulness. However, in order to effectively brace against the gusts of bigotry and hypocrisy, we have to be anchored to our core beliefs and values. It’s more important than ever to be considerate, deliberate, and careful in the ways we engage the big problems of the day.

Having compassion for the people we engage with, especially online, centers us in a place of empathy. There are so many corners of the Internet where perpetual outrage has become the norm, and we’re encouraged to think of the people who disagree with us as a faceless, perhaps inhuman ‘enemy’ undeserving of consideration. As we grow more estranged from folks with different perspectives, the criteria for being spared our wrath becomes smaller and smaller. Over time, we might find ourselves having knock-down, drag-out fights with close friends we’ve known for years over relatively small disagreements. We might cut ourselves off from people who might only need patience, understanding, and connection.

I notice these days that my temper is a lot shorter than it used to be, and I’m not saying there aren’t good reasons for that. It can be exhausting advocating for your right to equal protection and consideration, especially to people who refuse to acknowledge there’s inequality in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with being angry about this; anger is an indication that my sense of order in the world has been disrupted, that there’s an injustice that needs to be rectified.

It’s what we do with that anger that causes issues. Anger can be a great motivator for real change in the world. Protests and movements that have forced power to reckon with the abuses it has perpetuated gain momentum because of our anger, given direction and a purpose. But far too often our anger is simply expelled towards the closest targets, and far too often those closest targets are our friends. Even if our anger at something a friend says or does is justified, it’s worth holding that anger mindfully to consider how it can best be expressed.

Anger can be balanced with compassion for our fellow human beings. So many people we know have grown up in a racist society, unaware of their privilege or the fact that they benefit from it. It’s hard to see that for what it is, and harder still to reconcile that with the story we’ve told ourselves about our lives. Hardest of all is knowing exactly what to do about it; there are so many white progressives painfully aware of their privilege but with no idea how to make peace with it, or how to use it to erase the structures that have provided them with it. When we ask people with privilege to recognize it, we’re not just asking them to admit the existence of an institutional injustice. We’re asking them to admit their personal history is a lie; that they benefit from something they never asked for.

Dismantling our self-image is a process, and it’s different for everyone. It took me years to understand and accept transgender ideas, and longer still to come to terms with my privilege as a cisgender male. There are still issues that I need to deal with, still things that I get wrong all the time. To be honest, it’s frightening and exhausting wading into all of that; there’s so much to untangle, much of it a fundamental understanding of sex and gender expression, and the punishment for doing or saying the wrong thing is so high.

I think we all have our blind spots. Some of us are blissfully unaware of the immense amount of human suffering beyond the borders of our own country, while others struggle with recognizing the need for deeper consideration of our environment. Some of us are tone-deaf when it comes to racial justice; others don’t take into account how difficult it is to deal with poverty at an early age, or hidden disabilities, or even the difficulties of being a woman. Knowing our own difficulties in the journey towards undoing the damage of the bigotry we’ve been taught can help us understand how hard it is to do, and have greater empathy for those who may not be malicious — just ignorant.

That kind of consideration can also allow us to pick our battles. The Trump Administration and the forces that have given rise to his particularly odious brand of politics presents us with an overwhelming multi-front assault daily. Environmental regulations are being stripped; scientific expertise is being devalued; criminal justice issues are becoming worse as police forces are emboldened by the empty ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric coming from the Attorney General; people of color are being systematically targeted through countless initiatives; our privacy rights have been severely compromised; reproductive rights are being challenged at every level; cultural enrichment initiatives are being threatened and defunded; corruption, hypocrisy and sophist arguments have made reasonable debate about this in the public square all but impossible.

We now know that bad-faith actors online exploit our desires to try to bridge the gulf between ideologies, forcing us to provide evidence for minute details and batting them away when they’re delivered. We know that the thundering waterfall of awesomeness is designed to wear down our ability to resist. We know that the people who want to enable Trump’s agenda are counting on our eventual burn-out; once the heat dies down, they move forward after we’re too spent and discouraged.

We have to know our limits. We have to understand that our energy to resist is a finite resource, and that it’s important to give ourselves the space we need to recharge. If we’re incensed at every new scandal, or sound the alarm over every new development, we not only exhaust ourselves — we exhaust our allies and others who might come to our aid. Sometimes, taking a moment to understand what’s happening and what still needs to happen for terrible consequences to come due can help us prioritize the issues and decide where and how we fight. We’ve done an amazing job fighting so much bullshit from the administration, but there are three more years before removing them from office is a viable option. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are ready for battle, but maybe we haven’t considered how to be ready for war.

It’s simply impossible to resist everything Trump is throwing at us. Sure, it’s awful that the President of the United States is getting into a Twitter war with athletes and rappers, entertainment figures and journalists, but we know that dignity is a foreign concept to him already. Will getting angry about it change anything? How much does that matter compared to, say, making sure that voting restriction laws aren’t rammed through various state legislatures or that our immigrant friends and neighbors have what they need to find a legal path to remaining here?

I don’t mean to advocate for letting important stuff fall off the radar. But it’s better to devote our limited time and energy to a few causes that are really important to us than try to do everything at once and extinguish the fire that keeps us going before we can see our actions produce results.

We have to be careful about our resistance. It’s great that so many of us have become so passionate about the direction of our country and committed ourselves to turning it around. But we must also be the changes we want to see in the world around us, and that can’t happen if we’re buffeted by the political currents day in and day out, unable to remain rooted to our principles and see things clearly. We sacrifice our mental health, our relationships, our ability to create true and lasting change by acting without thinking. We have to take a long look at our core values, what it means to live those values on a personal and societal level, and how we can take our communities from where we are to where we know they can be.

This can’t be done by the expression of anger or the rejection of the people who make us angry. Careful thought is needed, and planning, and eventual solutions to our biggest problems. How can we curb greenhouse gas emissions in this country before we incur the worst effects of climate change? How can we encourage big, multi-national corporations to keep their headquarters in the country while paying their fair share of taxes and their workers a living wage? What does a society that has dismantled the institutions of racism and bigotry within government and culture look like? What does justice look like for the corrupt, the racist, the hateful at all levels of society? Is there a way back for people like Chris Christie, or Louis CK, or that friend from high school who fell into the clutches of the alt-right? What does that path towards reconciliation look like?

I honestly don’t know how effective our resistance will be until we think about these questions and discuss the answers we come up with. I don’t think we can keep screaming at each other to make things better without thinking about how we can do that, all together. We have to be mindful with our anger, our calls for justice, ourselves, our friends and neighbors. Otherwise we’ll end up doing some of the very things we can’t abide seeing from the other side.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Politics

 

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(Personal) Hello, April

Self Improvement 150Floating in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour was long enough for me to realize that a great deal of my problem is overstimulation. It’s tough for someone sensitive to sensory input to live in a world like this, geared towards making sure something is grabbing your attention all the time. We live at a time where it’s seen as largely acceptable to pay for something with our focus instead of money; think about all of the services we use for ‘free’ in exchange for ads, or the data that companies can use to make ads that much more irresistible. Corporations have learned to use our attention as another potential revenue stream; it’s time we start thinking of it the same way we do our hard-earned money. That’s why this month, I’d like to focus on budgeting my attention and focus the same way I budget my money.

I admit it’s a harder thing to do. Money is a finite resource (just like our attention), but it’s a lot easier to quantify and measure. We know exactly how much money we get in our paychecks, and we can subtract our expenses from our income to know when we’re stepping outside of our means. With attention, it’s not so straightforward. We can’t wake up every day with the intention that we only ‘spend’ 2 hours’ worth of attention on social media, or that today is a ‘no advertisement’ day where we refuse to pay attention to any form of advertising. We can’t slice our focus into discrete chunks, and then decide what parts of our environment we give those chunks to.

But we can be more mindful about when and where something is asking for our attention, and what our reaction to that request might be. On our phones, what apps and games buzz to draw our focus back to the screen? When we’re browsing a website, what links do we click to stay engaged with it, and how do we end up following article after article? When we’re walking or driving outside, what things grab our eyes and hold them? When we watch TV, how many times do we notice ads — especially ones that work around our ability to fast-forward through them?

Any time you notice something using obnoxious or obvious means to attract your attention, think about the process that created the situation. Why would a company risk the ill will of a potential customer just to force us into having to engage with its advertisement? Why on Earth would so many websites auto-play videos when we visit pages? What’s to be gained by forcing us to engage with something?

There are some websites that we might feel are worth paying for with our attention. When they ask us to whitelist them from ad blocking programs, we might be inclined to do so. When Google or Facebook asks for our information in order to better serve ads to them, we might think it’s a fair trade for the useful and convenient services they offer. That’s fine. But it really should be our choice, and I think our modern experience online and in real life isn’t set up in the interest of offering us that choice. Everywhere we go, there is something trying to get us to engage with it; we don’t have the ‘right’ to choose where our attention is going when we enter a public space.

I’m really not sure how we can address this on any big level, but I do know that I will take better notice of things that try to force my attention away from what I’m doing — whether it’s YouTube offering me other videos to watch, IGN auto-playing videos, movies with egregious product placement, or ad ‘stunts’ tricking me into investing time or focus towards something. One of the biggest pet peeves I’ve developed recently is a company taking advantage of my fandom in order to sell me a pile of crap; the endless rebranding initiatives of Marvel Comics and the “mystery box/alternate reality” model of Bad Robot properties immediately comes to mind.

I know enough about myself to know that it’s easy for my attention to be drawn away, and it’s best if I cultivate an environment where I choose when and how to switch my focus from one thing to another. I’ve already disabled almost all notifications on my phone, and whenever a website offers me desktop notifications I decline and resolve to use that website less in the future. I use apps like Ghostery and AdBlock Plus to clean the pages of the sites I visit, and I whitelist only the ones that I use frequently and don’t have obnoxious intrusive ads that pop up, play sound, or ‘trick’ you into being redirected by shifting the close button or using intentionally misleading UI. When I finish one task, or an article or a video, I try to take a breath to recenter myself and make a mindful decision on what to do next. That’s not always successful, for sure, but I’m getting better at this the more I do it.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month, too. In the interest of making sure I’m on a more solid foundation for life, I’d like to double back and refocus on the basics: meditating every day, reading and writing every day, eating well every day, exercising as often as possible. The very basic building blocks of self-care that give you the best possible shot at being emotionally resilient. So far, it’s…still a process, but failure is bundled into that of course. The trick is to not let failure discourage you; take the lessons you can from it, then move on with a better idea of how to succeed.

So that’s it; being very judicious about my attention and how I’m spending it, then putting that attention to where it will do the most good. How about you folks? What would you like to work on this month?

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Goodbye, March

Self Improvement 150The crisis point hit right in the middle of the month. We were coming out of a big Services meeting when my manager scheduled a one-on-one meeting right afterward. I had assumed it would be the follow-up on our annual reviews and talk about merit increases; in a way, I was right. The management structure in our department is in flux right now, so the colleague who had been my direct manager was starting to offload his responsibilities behind the scenes while my new direct manager was stepping in to take the reins of my little slice of the day job.

The two managers — let’s call them Cain and Abel to protect what little innocence they have left — make a pretty effective good-cop/bad-cop pair. Cain is one of those folks who knows a scary amount about computers and online culture, has seen just about everything there is to see in the dark underbelly of the web, and generally gets along with you if you’re competent in the way he’s looking for. Abel is an aging punk and family man who has a bottomless and unironic love for professional wrestling. They’re both really great with their jobs, and really good with people in their own way; they go out of their way to build a personal relationship with the folks they’re managing. Unfortunately, they’re both now part of a structure that seems to force people to say one thing while doing another.

Cain was my direct manager at the beginning of the month, and he had given me a heads up that my performance at the day job was dangerously close to unsatisfactory; that being said, he would put me on an ‘unofficial’ probation to get my success metrics back up and train me how to work a bit more efficiently. After a month, if things were back to where they should be, I could skip a more ‘formal’ probation process and resume business as normal. That was the plan, and I could see I was in a bit of trouble. I was working through it, trying to corral the depression and anxiety, working hard to prioritize self-care, and nearly through the latest emergency with Mom.

In fact, the day after Mom had been placed in long-term care at the nursing home, Abel and I had the meeting that put me on the Performance Improvement Plan. If you’re not a part of corporate America, the Performance Improvement Plan (or PIP) is a really scary thing: some say its only purpose is to build a paper trail that ultimately ends with you being pushed out of the company, while others say it’s an actual disciplinary step designed to get you back on track and the company wouldn’t go through the trouble if it didn’t want you to stay. Abel assured me the latter was the case, but given the track record with my company I couldn’t fully put my trust in that. For every reassuring comment, there was another that set off alarm bells in my head. Even if I made it through the PIP, I got the feeling that my days at my current position were numbered.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I freaked out — wouldn’t you? But after that, I dug in. I asked questions about how to navigate through it; I did research on different perspectives and advice on how PIPs should be handled; I built a plan to make sure I hit (or exceeded) my goals for the plan; and I brushed up my resume and started to look for another place to be in earnest.

This past month has been dominated by the day job and my continuing recovery. I’ve been working hard to realize the source of my anxiety and deal with it directly, and while that progress has been slow there has been progress. I’m working hard to make sure that I get enough sleep, my diet is improving steadily, and that I build habits that help me to become more emotionally resilient. I’ve done my best to be more consistently mindful.

I also tried float therapy for the very first time. Float therapy is the new marketing term for putting yourself into a sensory deprivation tank for some time; most people only know about it through the 1980 science-horror film Altered States or through Fringe, the surprisingly fun science-fiction show that ran on FOX a few years ago. In real life, float therapy supposedly helps you with rehabilitation; it’s also supposed to help with anxiety, deeper meditative states and lucid dreaming.

My dear husband gave me a gift certificate for three floats as a birthday present, and this was the first time I actually remembered to make an appointment. The FLOAT Center in Oakland is (according to them) the very first of its kind in the Bay area, and it’s more of an old-school experience; while other tanks have LED lights and music and such, here it’s just you and a huge light- and sound-proof tank filled with a slurry of Epsom salts and heated water. It’s completely dark, extremely quiet, and pretty humid.

I was shocked by how well it worked. I’m fairly sure everyone has something they’ll need to get used to at first, and for me it was the humidity inside the tank. The strange sensation of weightlessness was actually really pleasant, and the complete darkness conjured strange, flashing images that grew more intricate as time went on. It was ridiculously easy to lose track of time in there, but when the knock came to let me know my hour was up I was almost dreamily relaxed.

The proprietor is wonderfully liberal and New Age; I rather like her, even if the metaphysical explanation of what happens with the tank is a little suspect. Given how badly I’ve needed a healthier way to manage stress and the fact I have two more free floats in store, I wasted no time in booking my next session along with an hour-long massage. I have the feeling I’ll need to be poured into my car by the time it’s all over.

It’s been a hard month, but things have steadily gotten better — or at least, my attitude has. There is still a lot to untangle with Mom’s finances, and I get the feeling that now she’s staying some place local family will drop the threads we had been working on; it’ll be up to me to keep the momentum. The focus on my day job has been paying off, and I’m in good shape with my PIP. There is at least one promising lead on the job search, and if all goes well I might have excellent news on the other side of May.

Most importantly, I feel more capable of focusing on the things that are important to me and I have a solid framework of determining how and why that focus gets broken. One of the things I’d really love to do in the month ahead is find a way to bring this realization to action. Attention, especially for someone like me, is a precious and finite resource. It’s important to make sure that I protect it and spend it as judiciously as possible.

That’s my March. What big successes did all of you have this past month? What was the most important lesson you learned? How did the last 31 days or so prepare you for success this month?

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Goodbye, February

Myth 150The last time I spoke to my mother on the phone, she sounded lonely. But in typical Mom fashion, mostly she complained about the people with her at the in-patient rehab center. The white woman who had roomed with her was a racist. The nurses checking in on her were stealing her clothes. She just wanted to be by herself.

Her hearing isn’t good and the phone in her room is even worse, so most of my questions — half-hearted attempts at small talk — were answered with “Huh?” and “What did you say?” over and over again. I repeated myself louder and louder, until I was screaming at the phone enough to feel angry and anxious. After about ten minutes of that I opted for a different tack — soft and gentle noises of acknowledgement. “Mm-hmm,” I said. “OK.”

Mom has been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers for nearly a year at this point. This latest run was a particularly hard one. She had been invited to stay with her sister, my aunt, while we worked out arrangements with Baltimore City to get an elder-care nurse to check in on both of them. That lasted about three days before she was back in the hospital with an infection. Two weeks later, she was released to a rehab facility. Three days after that, back in the hospital with a more severe infection that had reached her blood.

Through it all she’s been at turns gravely ill, terribly uncooperative, and demanding in the way that only very old people can manage. My aunt (the title you give to any family member who is also an older woman) has quickly realized what a handful my Mom is, so she’s been pretty hands off about all of this even though she said she would take care of her. I can’t blame her. Mom IS a handful. Most of the trouble she gets into is the kind she creates for herself and expects other people to get her out of.

Her most recent stay in rehab is scheduled to end in three days. Neither of my aunts are all that interested in taking her back, but there’s nowhere else for her to go. According to her social worker, she’s too independent for a nursing home and too poor for assisted living. At least she realizes she can’t go home now. The last time I asked her where she wanted to go it never came up in the conversation. But there was a weary resignation in her voice as she fumbled for an answer; she can’t think of any place she’d rather be.

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for months now what a rotten year I’ve had. My sister died of a drug overdose last April, I say. I had to organize the funeral while trying to find a place for my invalid mother. I had to try to get my sister’s youngest children out of foster care even though I couldn’t take them. I had to confront all the stuff in my past that never got closure.

But after answering my mother’s pleas to call her anytime, day or night, with promises that I would, it hit me that she’s had an even more awful year. I lost my sister, but she lost her daughter. And before she could even grieve properly she was ripped out of her house and away from her neighbors and support. She was forced to rely on help from someone she really didn’t like all that much. Her life has been an endless procession of strange places and overworked health-care workers, a litany of pain in her back, her hips, her stomach, her heart. When the physical pain isn’t too bad, the grief rushes in to take up a shift. There are so many people she lost: her husband, her first son, her daughter, her grandchildren, and me.

Sometimes when the sun goes down the stress chases away her awareness. She can’t eat, she can’t sleep, she can’t do anything but wonder where she is and why she’s there. She gets mean. She refuses to take anything but medicine for the pain. She never gets enough of it.

I know if I were in my mom’s situation, I would want to die. I couldn’t take knowing that all the chances I’ve ever had in life have been taken, and this is where they’ve lead me. I don’t think I could handle the regret and the bewilderment, the ache of a failing body on top of the ache of loss. I think of her every day in some room that smells like industrial cleaners and is probably way too cold, waiting for a familiar face to make her feel better. It breaks my heart.

But I can’t let go of all the choices she’s made, all the things she’s said and done to push me away and ultimately cut me adrift. I can’t forget all the terrible things she said and did to my sister as she struggled with mental illness and addiction. I can’t rally a scattered family around someone they decided they didn’t want anything to do with years ago, or navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy from across the country.

And I can’t write stories while trying to sort through this tangle of anger and guilt and frustration. I can’t write blogs about politics or geek culture. I can barely get it together enough to stay out of trouble at my day job. It’s hard. I don’t know what to do. In three days Mom could be wheeled out in front of a building to wait for a new home that doesn’t exist yet. It feels like a massive failure for her to be this close to that.

The next time I talk to my mother on the phone, I hope I can shout good news at her. I hope we can find a place for her to settle down, work through that grief and pain. I sincerely hope this is the bottom.

God, it’s been a hard year.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Friday Fiction) Br’ers #3: High Afternoon

Writing 150“So does like, seeing a hawk scare you now?” Jeremy pointed to the silhouette of a bird coasting in lazy circles above the trees. It made two loops before perching at the very top of a pine that must have been in Mr. Atherton’s yard for generations now.

Aaron watched it with lazy amusement. From anyone else, the question would have knocked him on his heels — but from his best friend, it was a silly thought he could treat lightly. He held it for a moment, laughing silently, before batting it back.

No more than it scares you to see Aku, he signed. Aku was another Br’er in the neighborhood — a Lion — who they studiously avoided even before the Change happened. He had a crew, was the first kid on his block to have a car, wore the freshest clothes that no one who lived in a house like his could afford. It was an open secret that he was probably dealing; or at least, he had been. He also liked jacking the neighborhood kids for fun, though now there was a new viciousness in the exchange that rattled folks even more. It was only a matter of time, folks knew, before something was going to happen. Nobody wanted to be the one it happened to.

Jeremy sucked his teeth and rolled his eyes, then took a long drag of the joint he had just lit. “Shit, man, just because he’s some big muscle-cat don’t mean nothing. He still better not step to me.”

Sure, Jan, Aaron signed. He grinned when Jeremy pushed his shoulder and handed him the joint.

They were sitting in Jeremy’s backyard, half a block up the street from Aaron’s house. Technically, it was the parents’ backyard, but Jer’s mom was working a second shift at the hospital and his dad was going to be late working on a Mercedes that needed some engine work. Neither of them would be home until the buzz had peaked and began to fade.

It was a little plot, long and narrow and covered with grass that was just a little too long. A solid chain-link fence separated them from identical plots on either side and the thin alley at the far end. A sagging border of chicken wire marked the struggling garden of Jeremy’s mom; the corn, tomatoes and okra shoots that had peeked out of the ground were already threatening to turn yellow. The sun was low in the sky, not quite ready to set but heading that way. It illuminated the peeling white paint of the house behind them, and the bare metal patio furniture they sat in.

Aaron rolled the thin joint in his fingers, considering it. He had been told by his doctor not to take any drugs without their recommendation — his new physiology might react to things he had taken all his life in ways they couldn’t predict. They had to have known he had THC in his system when he was admitted, though, and it hadn’t done anything too terrible. He brought it to his lips and inhaled.

The smell of the burning grounds overwhelmed his senses for a few seconds, burning the scent of earth and grass, paint and rust out of his nostrils. His eyes watered immediately, and his throat seized in revolt; he could only hold the smoke for two beats before he collapsed into a fit of coughing and sneezing. One ear swiveled as he heard Jeremy crack up next to him, taking the joint back as he doubled over.

“Hey yo, it’s like you never smoked before! Damn! I know it ain’t been that long.” Jeremy smoked, then laughed, then fell into a coughing fit. “This is dry as shit though.”

They coughed together for several moments, the whooping sound echoing off the shed in Mr. Atherton’s backyard across the alley. The whole neighborhood probably knew what they were doing back there, which only worried Aaron a little, and even less once the pot kicked in.

So you’ve been saving that thing for me this whole time, huh? He lifted his whiskers in the approximation of a grin. Jeremy was the first person to figure out what the expression meant.

“Shit, smokes like it, don’t it?” He offered it back to Aaron, who waved it away. One hit was enough; he’d see how he felt with that. “But nah, I got this from Freddie over on Park Heights. He said it was some good shit, all the way from California…or maybe Colorado…but I’m not with it. Burns too much.”

Yes, it’s a lot. Aaron felt the way the fur moved on his arms as he signed. It was distracting how cool it felt. But I like the feeling.

Jeremy grinned wide at him. “Man, me too. It’s just old, I guess.”

They both sank into the chair, arms dangling over the sides nearly to the grass. Aaron could almost feel the tension seeping from his fingertips into the ground. He took a deep breath, aware of the way his chest lifted, of the warm, smoky air sucked through his nostrils, the feel of his breath on the back of strange teeth.

He tapped Jeremy’s shoulder to get his attention, then signed Thanks for this. I really needed it.

“No doubt, no doubt,” Jeremy said, stretching out his legs. His flip-flops left a trail of flattened grass behind them. “When I saw you at Starbucks, you looked like one of those little bunnies in the pet store, ears all flat, whiskers all shaking. I knew immediately, like, I need to get this fool high as fuck on the quick.”

Aaron snorted and doubled over. He was seized by an impulse to whip his ears back and forth, or to get up and kick out his legs. It happened whenever he laughed now, and he didn’t know what to do with it. His fur ruffled, and he shook his head; his ears whipped, the sounds of the city distorting and muting in weird ways as they did. He wasn’t sure he was ever going to get used to it.

He glanced over at Jeremy when the feeling passed. His friend was watching him, but if he was concerned about it he didn’t let on. For some weird reason, Aaron appreciated that. This…this was the most normal he felt in a long time. It was the first thing since being back that felt like it hadn’t changed.

“But for real though, you’re welcome. I can’t even imagine how weird this is for you. You know I got you if you need anything, right?” Jeremy puffed, exhaled, and passed to Aaron.

Yeah, I know. Aaron grinned as he took the joint and placed it in his muzzle. Just like I got you if you need someone to beat up Aku for you.

Jeremy laughed, “Man, sit your rabbit ass down before that dude straight up eats you. I know he’s gone through all his mama’s cat food by now.”

Aaron grunted in laughter and shook his ears again. It felt good.

It felt good.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2018 in Furries, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Buddhism) We’re All Mad Here

Buddhism 150I’ve been thinking a lot about anger over the past month and a half. Ever since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO way back in 2014 I’ve been increasingly political with my online presence — and the candidacy and ultimate inauguration of Donald Trump has pushed that side of my digital identity much more to the forefront. Politics, and the anger it generates, has crept into every aspect of my existence here. Largely, this has been due to social media and the breakneck speed with which outrageous news is being circulated there. There have been entire days spent tweeting and retweeting about the latest controversy in the furry fandom, in sci-fi and fantasy publishing, in Washington; agreeing with or challenging comments from folks about them; trying to find just the right point to make that might win hearts and minds. But now, four years later, I’ve hit outrage exhaustion: what’s left in its wake is a weary, frightened resignation. This can’t continue the way it has. We need to seriously think about how our current Internet culture is encouraging, even normalizing, constant and unreasoning anger.

First, let me say that we have a lot to be angry about. The police brutality we’ve seen through Brown and a parade of other victims hasn’t abated. The Trump Administration has been openly corrupt, incompetent, and vicious in its attacks on marginalized populations of just about every stripe — and it’s been largely aided by the Republican Party. Our ability to solve problems with even bipartisan support has become impossible. Meanwhile, authoritarianism, xenophobia, anti-social and anti-environment behavior has spread through the United States and the rest of the world in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible even back four years ago. There are far too many people who think we’re going in the right direction — or, at least, that there aren’t actually any problems with what’s going down right now.

This is an incredibly scary time, and it can be incredibly frustrating to see just how many things are going wrong and how few people care. In light of what’s happening to our country and the world, I think anger is a completely acceptable response. We’re right to be angry. But we’re not doing the right things with our anger, and that’s the problem.

One of the best things I learned from my group class for Anxiety Disorder is thinking about emotions like the lights on your dashboard. We don’t chastise our cars for telling us that our oil is low, that we need a new battery, or that we need gas. Those alerts are telling us that we need to attend to something in order to keep our cars running smoothly. Emotions are the same way; they’re our mind’s way of telling us that something within us needs attending to. In my case, the ‘anxiety’ dashboard light is way too sensitive but that’s another story. If we shift our thinking about our emotions to this framework, categorizing them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ no longer makes sense. They’re simply calls for action.

Anger, in particular, can be a very difficult emotion to allow mostly because it’s so immediate and powerful. It drives us to do things at the moment we later regret, and I’m no different. Last year alone I can immediately think of three or four different occasions where my anger got the better of me and caused a difficult situation to become that much worse. When this happens again and again, we begin to mistrust that emotion. We see it as a problem, as something that we must ignore or excise in order to be healthy. But that’s just as damaging as flying off the handle.

It is important to allow yourself to be angry. It is important to understand that anger, like any other emotion, is a call to pay attention to something inside yourself. Exactly what that is might be different from person to person, but for me it’s a sign that one of my values has been offended or, as Tara Brach so wonderfully put it, a deep need is not being met. When we feel ourselves getting angry, if we sit with the feeling and follow it towards its source, we can learn surprising things about what we value and what we need. Once we’ve made that discovery, we can frame our reaction around that instead of making sure whoever angered us is ‘punished’. That impulse to punish is what happens when our desire to make the world a better place is carried through thoughtlessly.

I know that I have a problem with anger; it flares up fast but dies just as quickly. Over time, I’ve learned to wait out the emotion without taking action through it. Most of the time, whatever angered me won’t seem like such a big deal once I’ve calmed down. These past few years, though, I’ve been getting angry over things that are very much a big deal. These offenses to my values aren’t easy to get over, and when there are new offenses every day — sometimes multiple times in one day — it feels impossible to take a step back and calm down. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all seem to be designed for stoking that anger, keeping the coals hot, because we pay attention to the things that anger us. Algorithms designed to keep us on websites for longer have hijacked our focus and severely eroded our ability to deal with anger constructively.

It’s very important to take a beat when we find ourselves getting angry, if only to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Why does this make me so angry? Who benefits from my anger? What can I do to really address what’s causing this response? Tara Brach calls this “the u-turn”, a necessary and conscious choice to direct our attention inwards instead of outwards, to sit with our anger and learn what it’s asking us to attend to. Sometimes, before we can even do that, we have to forgive ourselves for being angry, or give ourselves permission, or just reckon with the unpleasant physical and mental sensations that come with it. Either way, none of that happens without taking a pause.

This can be very difficult on social media. Twitter moves so fast, and often taking a moment to consider our responses can mean that the conversation moves on without us. But this isn’t a bad thing; that can teach us that not every exchange or idea needs our input. Sometimes, it’s better for everyone involved to let the moment go.

Once we understand the mechanisms that trigger our anger, we can do better about expressing that anger in a way that fosters connection and collaboration. Tara Brach believes that anger, at its source, is about us — what we need, what we care about, how we express ourselves. I agree with that, but up to a point. While there are so many things in the world that should not be, we also have greater control over our personal experience than we think. Anger might be a completely justified response to an external stimulus, but how we handle our anger can be brought under our control. It’s not easy, and it’s not always possible to know the best way to express it, but with time, effort, practice and patience we can get better at it.

This has all been brought up through a few different things. One, Tara Brach’s wonderful talk on “Anger: Responding, Not Reacting“; two, an episode of the “Where There’s Smoke” podcast that explores how social media has become a Skinner box for impulsive, expressive rage. I highly encourage you to take a listen to both of these whenever you have a chance — and let me know what you think. How can we express our anger more productively? How can we change our behavior on social media to tackle the things we find most important without contributing to the ‘noise’ of outrage culture?

 

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(Fiction Friday) Br’ers #2: The Stranger Comes Home

Writing 150After the carefully neutralized scents and sterilized surface of the government facility he had been staying in, coming home was almost overwhelming to Aaron. The van he drove in from stank of metal and fast food and countless agents who had been there before him, and even with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning roaring from the dashboard he could catch the changing smells of the city outside. He stared at Cold Spring Lane as it grew winding and treacherous; the van’s suspension was tested by the inescapable potholes.

Familiar territory looked strange after nearly half a year away from it. Or maybe his way of seeing things had grown stranger; he could keep one eye on the side streets the van was turning down while keeping another eye on the interior at the same time. He watched the people on the sidewalk stop what they were doing — leaning against walls, or chatting with friends, or pushing shopping carts down the block — to stare as he passed. The van was supposed to be somewhat inconspicuous, but in this neighborhood a shined-up black van with tinted windows and antennae bobbing on the roof was sure to attract attention. He imagined word spreading through the neighborhood as he got closer to home, tried to see if lights turned on inside the houses as he went by. Surely, people would know something was going down by now.

He blinked and looked away from the window. He took a deep breath. He focused on the sound of the van’s engine, the scents inside the car, the feel of his fur against the soft cloth seats. The case worker said that he would likely have different thoughts now, instincts looking for a reason to be. No one was sure just how much inside Br’ers had changed, but the consensus was that undergoing such a drastic physical transformation had to have seriously rewired the brain in ways that might never be understood. Since almost none of them had stepped foot inside a psychiatrist’s office before then, there was no telling what conditions had been with them before the change and what had developed after.

To Aaron, that sense of wariness was familiar. He always had one eye on an escape route, and that hadn’t changed now that he was a giant bipedal rabbit. He just got better at finding the angles and accounting for small details. Even though he had never felt more anxious, or maybe more aware of his own anxiety, he felt better equipped to deal with it. It wasn’t a problem; it was smart.

“We’re here,” the driver said. The van rolled to a stop, and Aaron instinctively looked at the house they were in front of. It was a semi-detached home with a chainlink fence around it, long but narrow with a tiny porch crammed with old, rusting furniture. The grass in the little plot of a yard was wild, but there were islands of dark, rich earth bordered by thick white stones. Tiny flowers struggled to remain upright there, splashes of yellow and pink and white that stood out against the flaking whitewash on the walls, the cracked concrete of the walkway, the dirty grey paint of the stairs.

The flowers were new. Aaron wondered if his mother needed a project to distract her from what had happened, if this was her way of burning off her anxiety. Whenever she was dealt a blow, something would get fixed or upgraded. Home improvements were signs that she wasn’t handling something well.

Aaron noticed his heart beating faster as he got out of the car. The agent — dressed down in khakis and a polo shirt that did nothing to hide the military precision with which he picked up the luggage — walked through the gate and up to the porch like it was his house. It took Aaron several deep breaths to get up the nerve just to follow.

He had no idea how his family would receive him. The case worker said that it would be an adjustment for everybody, that it was bound to be awkward for a few days while everyone adjusted to the new normal. But the case worker had no idea what she was talking about. There was no adjusting to this. It was never going to be normal.

“Well, here we are,” the agent said as Aaron joined him on the porch. He watched the white man look around the porch, scanning lightly over the trash bags next to the broken rocking chair, the empty beer bottles on the old patio table, the food dish on the floor with ancient nuggets of dried out cat food. The man’s scent changed slightly, and the corners of his mouth turned down. Then he rang the doorbell.

The front door opened immediately; Aaron’s mom must have been standing right there. She stared at him with wide eyes, then looked at the agent. She looked shockingly small and frail; had she always been that short? That thin?

“Ma’am, I’ve brought your son home.” The agent clasped his hands behind his back as he jumped right in. “Aaron has been cleared for release to the general population, but if you have any trouble at all please call the number in your information packet.”

“O…OK,” was all she said. She remained frozen to the spot.

The agent simply nodded, then turned to Aaron. “Good luck, son.”

Thank you, Aaron signed. He lifted his whiskers in a close approximation of a smile, then watched as the agent briskly walked away, got into his car, and drove away. He turned to his mother and his heart skipped a beat when he saw the way she stared at him.

They stood like that for what felt like forever. She must be wondering if she should let him in, Aaron thought. He was wondering if he should stay. Whatever this place was, it wasn’t home any more.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2018 in Furries, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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