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Monthly Archives: August 2015

When I Talk About Bigotry

Politics 150There’s a big disconnect in our society when we talk about bigotry. I think a lot of people in privileged groups believe that bigotry means something like “active discrimination and disrespect of a minority group” or maybe “active/vocal hate directed towards every single member of a minority group”. There are a lot of people out there who believe that they aren’t bigoted (or even behave in bigoted ways or have bigoted thoughts) because hey, they’re not being Nazis or anything — they really just have good times with people, without “seeing” the race, orientation, religion or gender identity that makes them different.

It’s difficult to describe why that definition of bigotry is a misunderstanding, simply because our deepening ideas about what bigotry is don’t neatly fit within the space of 140 characters. There isn’t a good way to sum it up in a sound bite, or a metaphor that nails it perfectly. The fact of the matter is, an understanding of what I mean when I talk about bigotry requires an understanding of how I understand our society works, how bigotry is baked into the fabric of it in fundamental ways, and how we internalize and repeat those ideas.

OK, first, a definition of terms. Who is a bigot? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own prejudices and opinions; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” Intolerance is defined as “a quality of being unable or unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression or grant or share social, political or professional rights”.

So, a bigot is someone who treats members of a group as socially, politically or professionally inequal. A bigot is unwilling to allow members of a group equal expression or rights. A bigot is someone who is so devoted to their own ideas about the way the world works that they are unwilling to entertain the notion that it may work differently, that reality isn’t the way they think it is. They have the truth; that truth is immutable, and anyone who doesn’t believe the way they do is wrong and most importantly, intolerable.

The reason that the label of bigotry is such a hot one is it comes across as a value judgement. The subtext being spoken when you call someone a bigot is that “they are fixed to a particular way of thinking so firmly that they are unable to rethink it; they’re uncritical, inflexible, intolerant and unchanging.” And that you are, by definition, not any of those things. It often feels like two things are happening here. One, that the person designated as “bigot” is someone who is incapable of changing their beliefs. Two, that because this person is bigoted, anything they have to say can be completely ignored and there’s no reason to engage with them at all.

Being accused of being a bigot really hurts. It means that someone out there thinks you are a dinosaur, incapable of change; stupid; part of a generation that will die out to make way for a new, more enlightened generation. Too often, the accusation of bigotry is used as a wall that divides one person from another, and gives both parties a reason to never attempt a connection again.

I think there might be cause to “soften” that label. I think that bigotry is taught to all of us on a subtle and societal level, and that each and every one of us internalizes those bigoted ideas. That internalization causes us to act on bigoted assumptions — and by definition those actions are bigoted. Most of the time, we don’t even think about it. We simply act on what we’ve been taught is true and have no reason to question.

Part of dismantling bigotry within ourselves and on a societal level is understanding how these are ideas are part of the dominant institutions within our societies, how they are transmitted to the people within those societies, how we accept and absorb them as members of those societies, and how we can rethink these basic ideas, test them to see if something feels right or it doesn’t. It’s a lot of work, but it’s essential to understand not only how we work but how deeply these assumptions can be held. Once we’re able to recognize the capacity within ourselves to hold these thoughts, we can more easily recognize why other people believe and behave the way that they do, and why it can be so extraordinarily difficult for them to change.

There are so many assumptions about various groups that are hard-baked into our society — especially minority groups who tend to be under-privileged and don’t have access to the kind of massive reach that the powerful use on a daily basis. This of course includes mass media — not just news, but entertainment, marketing, education and more. All of it, either implicitly or explicitly, promotes and reinforces biases that need to be re-examined.

I don’t think this is a situation that’s necessarily borne from maliciousness, though malicious behavior has served to stifle and discourage attempts to change the status quo. Let’s take an example to see how institutional bias contributes to personal bigotry, at least from my perspective.

I’m a black man, and if you look through mass media throughout history our culture doesn’t have many positive examples for me. When we were brought to the United States, we were viewed as barely human, little more than savages who could understand basic commands and endure back-breaking labor that more genteel and enlightened races could not stomach. This myth of superhuman strength and physicality has been woven into the narrative of black men from that time on: in so many of our stories, black men fill the role of the “gentle giant” or a subset of the “noble savage”. In our entertainment, we’re presented as street-savvy toughs who are intimidating and dangerous. We join gangs, deal drugs, kill people. We go to prison (justly or unjustly), we father children and either die, abandon them or are taken from them. Three centuries of narrative on black men can be traced from slave owners selling their goods in the late-1700s to what policemen and news anchors say about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

We’re often seen as people who are prone to violence, have poor impulse control and limited (at best) intelligence — when we are seen as smart, it’s more of a cunning than an actual ability to learn complex concepts and make connections between them. There are, of course, exceptions to this — especially recently. But the monolithic image of the black male as someone with a dangerous and animal strength, as someone unpredictable and tough, prevails. It informs how we’re reflected in news reports and movies, TV shows and books. That image is disseminated in a hundred different ways, subtle and unsubtle, and absorbed by those of us who see those news reports and fictional accounts everywhere.

We internalize this idea, and we begin to act on it instinctively. Police officers are quicker to assume that black males have weapons, and more likely to interpret actions as aggressive or hostile. They’re more likely to use deadly force as a result. We, as civilians, instinctively grow more nervous when we see one or more black males on the street. We begin to make assumptions about how they live, what they want, and who they are. Even when it’s tinged with a positive sentiment, there are underlying traits that reflect centuries of basic, bigoted ideas handed down to us from the stories we’ve told ourselves over time.

This doesn’t only happen with black men. This happens with women, other people of color, the disabled, the mentally ill, transgender and gender-fluid people, gay, lesbians, bisexuals, the poor and disadvantaged, the homeless…and the list goes on.

With the rise of the Internet and the resulting democratization of content available in our culture, we’re seeing those minorities push back against these stories. Black men are standing up to say we’re not all hulking athletes, or dangerous toughs, or cunning tricksters. We’re not the stories you’ve heard about that are causing you to cross the street, assume we’re up to no good, shoot us down in our neighborhoods. We’re just people, as widely varied and scared and messed up as anyone else. We don’t fit into these societal narratives.

What we’re finding as we speak up is that there are many, many people who don’t want to examine the stories they’ve been told, the ideas they hold because of them, or the prevalence of this false and in many ways dangerous information. They don’t want to look at how this narrative has lead them to bigoted thoughts and actions — because of it, black men can’t gather in places without being harassed; we can’t interact with the police in the same ways a white man could; we’re far less likely to be considered for white-collar jobs or opportunities in STEM education; we’re much more likely to be suspended and disciplined in schools. The stories we tell ourselves as a culture about black men lead directly to the unequal treatment of us as a group, at all levels of society.

That’s bigotry in action. It’s codified in our culture, repeated over and over again throughout our history until it becomes a sort of background radiation, something we simply accept. Most of us have assumptions about various groups because that’s what we’ve been exposed to from an incredibly young age. Centuries of history and decades of personal absorption are incredibly hard to dislodge.

But it can happen. It does happen. It first takes realizing what’s going on in the first place and challenging our assumptions about basic ideas. What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be poor? What does it mean to identify with a gender that’s different from your physical sex? What does it mean to believe in a non-Christian view of the universe? Who are all of these people who don’t share your race, religion, orientation, socio-economic status? How do these differences affect their daily lives?

I’m learning an awful lot about this simply by listening to the people speak up about their own experiences. The plight of transgender people and women is something I haven’t been aware of until only recently, but my eyes have been opened in so many ways. It’s shocking to hear the things they’ve been through, the battles they continue to fight because of the ingrained, reflexive bigotry that we reflect unthinkingly.

I’ll admit, I’ve done, said and thought things that were bigoted. I will probably do so in the future; this is not because I’m a bad person, or that I’m intractable. It’s simply because I haven’t gotten to the place where I’m challenging basic, incorrect assumptions I’m still holding on to. But I’m working on that, I’m learning more all the time. That’s the burden we bear, the thing we must do to improve ourselves and the society we live in.

I ask sincerely that people have patience with me through this process. More importantly, have patience with other people who are still learning how to undo the education they’ve received; we’re all members of a flawed society we didn’t opt-in to, and some of us are going to have a more difficult time learning about those flaws, accepting the ways we’ve internalized them, and undoing that. Some people will be able to do this on their own; some people will need significant help that they may or may not ask for; some of us will never be able to do it. But I believe we’re all in the same boat with this, and it would be a great thing to help each other make progress however we’re able to do so.

Does this make sense? Do you agree, disagree? I look forward to the discussion in the comments.

 
 

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Friday Fiction: The Announcement (FBA)

Writing 150This is a quick story set in the FBA Universe, created by Buck Hopper. Daniel Quvianuq is a polar bear Center for the Seattle Summit; he spends a good bit of the off-season with his parents in their hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska. The Summit was bounced out of the first round of the playoffs this season by the Alaska Arctics, and now that his season is over Dan has come home to reconnect with his family. Big changes have happened, however, while he was away.

Curious about the Furry Basketball Association? Their webpage can be found here!
Daniel dropped his fork and gaped at his mother, Nukka. The sound of it hitting his plate was amplified by the tense silence of the two bears around him. Nukka looked down at her salmon, flaking it. His father Peter stared across the table at his wife, hands in his lap. His expression was blank.

At first Dan thought it was a joke, and they were both committing to it in a way he hadn’t known they were capable of. He smiled cautiously. His laugh was a nervous poke at his mother. “What?”

Nukka’s voice was quiet, meant only for the seared fish on her plate. Dan perked his ears to hear it. “Your father and I have decided–”

“Your mother is leaving me.” Peter spat the words, hackled raised. “Her heathen family has poisoned her against our union.”

Nukka’s face shot up at that, a look of surprise curdling into disappointment, then anger. “Peter…”

It was a growl of warning, a murmur of supplication. Dan’s father was unmoved.

“I…I don’t understand.” Dan put his hands on the table and leaned back in his chair, which creaked in a comforting and familiar way. “What’s going on here?”

“Oh for God’s sake, don’t be slow about this!”

“Peter!” Nukka slammed her hands on the table, making the plates and silverware shudder.

They glared at each other across the table, and Dan could feel his ears flattening against his head. He felt the need to hide, an instinctive drive to run somewhere safe and stable. The table felt a lot less sturdy than it did just a moment ago.

His father lowered his eyes first, sinking into his chair with a long sigh. “Sorry, sport. Your mother…” He tapered off.

“We’re not…” Nukka continued. Silence fell for another moment. Dan could tell both of his parents were struggling for some sort of explanation.

“This is hard,” she said. “It’s just…I’m just not sure I can be Catholic anymore. And your father, well…it means so much to him. He can’t have a wife who’s left the Church, and I know he can’t support me trying to get closer to my side of the family.”

“They’re wild, Nukka! They believe in all kinds of ridiculous magic and pagan gods! They EAT PEOPLE–” Peter’s voice rose steadily now, his anger pulling his lips back, revealing his fangs.

“How dare you!” Nukka rose in her seat now, her full seven-foot frame filling her side of the room. Now her teeth were showing, ears pinned back, white fur risen along the back of her neck. “You know that is a filthy lie and you know it! You just can’t stand that your fucking Church–”

“STOP!” Daniel bolted up from his seat before he even realized what he was doing. Both of his parents stared at him, anger draining from their faces. “You’re killing me. I love you both, but you’re just killing me right now.”

“I’m sorry–” Nukka looked down, grabbing her dress in her hands and twisting the fabric.

“No, it’s…how long has this been going on?” Dan looked from his father to his mother. “Every time we’ve seen each other it looked like things were fine. But this couldn’t have come out of nowhere.”

Nukka sat down, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and took a deep breath. “You know, when you were recovering from your knee surgery in your rookie year, and you were up here doing the community outreach stuff, your uncle Anyu called and said how happy he was you were taking an interest in your heritage. We just…started talking then and…” She shrugged, as if that explained everything.

Dan stared blankly. “So…two years ago? But why are you leaving the Church? Why are you getting divorced?”

Nukka shook her head. “I was never happy in the Church, Daniel. It was…something I thought I would learn to love because it was such a big part of your father’s life and…I loved that about him. But it…I just never liked it. I kept going for both of you.

“When your uncle called and I started reconnecting with my family, I just couldn’t do it any more. I tried talking to Peter about it, but you know how your father is.” She glanced at Peter, a hard edge creeping into her words.

“Uncompromising when it comes to the Word of the Lord? Yes. We can’t have anything to do with that nonsense.” Peter crossed his arms and stared at Daniel. “You and I, we know the truth, and we walk the path. Even if your mother strays, we’re solid. We are devoted to God.”

“Don’t pull me into this.” The words escaped Daniel’s mouth automatically. They stunned him, just like they stunned his father. He thought about how long it had been since he had been inside of a church; all the people he’s met and worked with who seem happier without religion in their lives; that night…

Daniel looked at his father and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Dad, but…you can’t pull me into this. I’m not going to be fought over.”

He looked at his mother, who was beginning to cry. “Ma, I love you. I love both of you, but…you need to figure this out. If you’re going to split, then do it. Call me when it’s settled.”

He stood up, trying to ignore the quiet sobs of his mother and the burn of his father’s gaze against his back. He had to get out of here. He couldn’t see his parents like this. It wasn’t right. None of this made any sense.

“Where are you going?” His father’s voice had taken on that harsher growl he was so familiar with. His ears folded automatically.

“I’m going home to Seattle. I can’t be here.”

“Son. You are home.” Peter sounded almost pleading. Dan kept moving. This wasn’t home any more, and it wouldn’t feel like it for a very long time.

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Furries, Writing

 

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A Look Through the Stacks

Myth 150To be honest, I’m still recovering from Sasquan. Monday was a bit of a lazy day for me and Ryan, and Tuesday was all about diving into the day job. I’m mostly caught up there, just in time for my annual review later today — at this point, I’m expected to prepare to hand off my current workload as an administrator so I can begin training as an actual support engineer. That means documenting a LOT of processes as clearly as I can.

After that, it’s all about technical training — which as I’ve mentioned before is pretty daunting. I’m excited, though, and optimistic. I think if I put my head down and push through with a clear plan on how to learn the things I need to, I’ll do fine. I just need the time.

In the meantime, there are a number of projects that have been stacking up here on the Writing Desk. I have a number of essays planned about all kinds of subjects — the meaning of bigotry, dipping my toes into the waters of afro-futurism, stepping up my game when it comes to tabletop RPGs, crafting a “season” of podcasts for mental health issues. I want to talk a bit about what sort of things we would want in a “perfect” furry hangout spot; if we had the opportunity to say, rebuild FurAffinity from the ground up, what kind of features would we want? What would the perfect user experience be?

I’m still working on “A Stable Love,” with the hope that it’ll be finished by the end of the month. From there, I’m moving on to three more short stories that I’m hoping will be polished and ready to show by October. I’d like to really get my act together for my Pathfinder game, and start doing periphery writing for my characters in other games. Kraugh the Togorian, Veniamin the werebear, Kerrebuck the Wookiee, and Takoda the troll all have stories that need telling. (Also, holy crap, I really do just play earnest giants, don’t I?)

I’m reading an anthology of furry stories for review elsewhere, and I’m noticing an interesting theme that runs through the stories there. I’m really looking forward to writing my review of it, mostly because I get to talk about the intersection of furry fiction and minority issues. You might have noticed that’s been something on my mind a whole lot this year.

So for now, head down, quiet time, hard work time. It’s time to transmute the excitement of the convention into fuel that propels me through the effort of creative production.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Notes From the Field: Sasquan 2015

Fandom 150The 73rd annual Worldcon was held this weekend in Spokane, WA at Sasquan 2015 and I showed up with a small posse of furry writers — Kyell Gold and my husband Ryan. It was an intense weekend; I met so many great writers and community members out there, made a few new friends, bought over a dozen books and attended panels that felt like revelations about the state of the sci-fi/fantasy fandom and my place in it. I’m still absorbing everything I’ve taken in through the convention — there are so many ideas I still have to take the time to understand properly and incorporate into my personal experience — but I wanted to talk about it here as soon as I could.

So, Worldcon works like this: it’s actually a bit of a roving convention, where different cities/conventions put in bids and those attending vote on the site that will get to host in two years. Spokane was chosen as the site for Worldcon in 2013; Kansas City (MidAmeriCon) was chosen in 2014 to host next year; and Helsinki, Finland won its bid to host in 2017 this year. I love this process, because it insures that Worldcon attendees are exposed to different flavors of fandom from year to year. Sasquan really went out of its way to highlight local fans and authors, and held panels on local myth and legends. Kansas City will do the same next year, I’m sure — and the guests of honor for Worldcon 75 feature active writers and artists based in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe.

This was my first Worldcon, and one of my first conventions in the broader sci-fi/fantasy space. The attendees were friendly, chatty, smart and open. I was pretty forthcoming about my fur, and most people didn’t seem to mind — a lot of folks personally knew furries and were totally cool about it. I know that furries have been roundly rejected by the SFF fandom before, but maybe it’s time for reconciliation; as long as we know how to take the temperature of the group we’re in and don’t shove folks into the deep end of the pool right away, I think most folks in the community are perfectly willing to accept our corner of it.

I got to meet so many wonderful people — established writers, up-and-comers, fans of all stripes and backgrounds. I wanted to give shout-outs to the folks who blew my mind especially, and who I’m really excited about reading more from now that the convention is over.

Ajani Brown is a professor at San Diego State University who gave a panel on Afro-Futurism in music and comics; his discussion on the basics and history of the movement just blew me away, and gave me a ton of places to look into so I can learn more about it. Mark Oshiro was the moderator of a “Visible Diversity in SF” panel and rocked my socks off — he talked about personal experiences with racism and homophobia, and offered insightful questions that kept the conversation productive and focused. Arthur Chu is a Jeopardy! champion that has used that experience to become a witty and wonderful voice in the fandom; he was also on the Diversity in SF panel. Cheryce Clayton is a Native American ghostwriter who has only recently started speaking about her work and experiences, and I’m so excited to see what else she comes out with.

Of course, one of the biggest highlights of the con was getting to hang out with Annie Bellet. Her short story “Goodnight Stars” was nominated for a Hugo, but she withdrew because her nomination had been corrupted by the Sad Puppies slate. She took a principled stand about the awards being about the work above all, and though her first experience with the Hugos was unquestionably sad, i have no doubt that she’ll be back in the mix. She’s just too good.

I got to meet Tananarive Due as well! She’s an amazing writer and so full of warmth and enthusiasm. She screened a short film called “Danger Word” at the convention, and talked at length about the vibrancy of short film in the SF/F space, the difficulties of putting something like this together, and the concept of “black horror” — thrilling tales that are rooted strongly in African-American culture, fears and concerns. There’s nothing really like that out there, but I’d love to imagine what it looks like or even take a crack at developing a story there. Another one for the pile, I suppose.

Jen Foehner Wells was another great friend to make! She’s been killing it on the self-publishing front, and listening to her talk about her craft and business was illuminating. She’s so smart, and focused, and intensely friendly! It’s really easy to love here and I can’t wait to read her book.

And finally, meeting Monica Villasenor was probably the best thing to happen all convention. She’s SO passionate, and our experiences and goals sync up so well. She was so amazing to talk to, and she has so many great ideas, and she’s so dedicated and hard-working. I’m just in love with her. I cannot WAIT to get to work on the goals we’ve set for ourselves through next Worldcon, and I am so looking forward to having a drink to celebrate our success in Kansas City next year.

There are so many great writers and fans out there, who are so passionate about what they love and so encouraging to others so they can pursue what they love. Coming out of Worldcon, I feel fully invested in the sci-fi/fantasy fandom, fully comfortable with my background in the furry fandom, and so excited to incorporate new and exciting ideas into my life and work.

There is so much more to read and learn, so much more to write and discuss, so much more to do. It’s just a matter of focusing the rocket fuel I’ve gathered over the weekend and making my calculations for the best trajectory. I have designs on where I want to be by Worldcon 2016, and a lot of work to do in order to get there.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2015 in Better Living Through Stories, Reading, Writing

 

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The Last Three Movies

Entertainment 150I miss posting movie reviews! And I would also like to learn how to be more efficient with my writing. So I thought I’d try to kill two birds with one stone by offering some short reviews of movies I’ve seen, three at a time. If something really warrants a bigger conversation, I might spin it off into future blog posts. But for now, here are the last three movies I’ve seen.

Reds (1981)
Warren Beatty co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in this epic film detailing the life and career of John Reed, a journalist who became one of the organizers of the Communist Party in America during and after the Russian Revolution. Diane Keaton co-stars as his lover and partner, Louise Bryant, and Jack Nicholson gives a solid supporting performance as the playwright Eugene O’Neill.

This is one of the movies that feels like it’s dangerously close to being lost to history, and if that happens it would be a real shame. The film details the very beginnings of the American bohemian’s flirtation with communist politics, as well as the protracted revolution from Russia’s side of things. It’s fascinating to watch this small community of writers and artists being pulled into the orbit of socialism, and Reed in particular becomes absolutely swallowed by it. Through the course of the film, he goes from being intrepid observer to the beating heart of American communism.

The movie is packed with tremendous performances from Beatty, Keaton, Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman. Scene after scene simply blows you away, with the writing sharp enough to cut through the core of the characters involved. The acting is pitch-perfect, with Keaton especially handling really difficult scenes like they’re no big thing. For a movie that’s over three hours long, it feels like an efficient machine using its own momentum to pull itself along.

For an epic movie, it also feels remarkably grounded. These are exceptional people with passionate minds and big ideals, but they’re meeting in crappy little living rooms or the basements of public buildings. Even when Reed and Bryant go to Russia during the Revolution, the headquarters of the new governments seem stripped bare of any opulence. This makes the movie feel intimate and personal, even as it deals with political upheaval that shaped the world for most of the 20th century.

You have to see this movie. No other American movie details this period of Russia’s history (or the American reaction to it) in quite this way, and the unique perspective is buoyed by the fact that it fires on all cylinders. This is perfect for a Sunday afternoon indoors, with a dinnertime discussion right afterwards.

Rating: 5/5.
These Final Hours (2013)
A meteor has slammed into the northern Atlantic, causing tsunamis and a global firestorm that will reach the coast of western Australia in twelve hours. A young man named James (Nathan Phillips) leaves a woman in her beachside home to head inland and meet the end with a party to end all parties, completely smashed out of his mind. “It’s going to hurt,” he says, “and I don’t want to feel it. I don’t want to feel a thing.”

Of course things don’t go according to plan. He saves a little girl (Angourie Rice) from being brutalized by two men, and finds himself protecting her for the rest of the world’s existence. Along the way, he learns how to face his life just in time for it (and all life on Earth) to end. This sounds like one of those typical indie “realization” stories about the lonely white male protagonist who wakes up to life when a woman enters his life and he falls in love, and in a way that’s exactly what it is.

It’s particularly well-done, though, and the fact that Rose (James’ young charge) is a pre-teen with no possible chance of sexual tension really helps. Instead of James learning how great or enjoyable life is, he’s actually forced to step outside of his own head for a minute and think about the safety and happiness of someone else. The scene where their time together comes to an end is the best in the entire movie, an understated, quiet moment of connection between two people.

I love pre-apocalyptic movies that focus on the ways people fall apart once the artifice of society is no longer there to keep them together. The great Last Night remains my favorite, but this is a solid contender — moody, quiet, but filled with loud and frightening personalities. The ending provides a fitting close and an indelible final image. This is a perfect movie to watch on a hot summer’s day, just so you can go out and appreciate the world around you once it’s over.

Rating: 3/5.

The Great Gatsby (2013)
Baz Luhrmann co-wrote and directed this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novels, and it certainly shows. When you see the wild revelries at Gatsby’s estate, you totally understand what drew him to the material — it’s really a chance for him to release his famously overblown aesthetic all over celluloid, and when has Luhrmann been one to turn away from a good time?

There’s also a painfully romantic story beating beneath the excess that Luhrmann has a little more trouble mining. Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) has moved to New York to work on Wall Street, and he quickly falls into the orbit of the upper crust there — through his neighbor, the mysterious and generous Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio); and through his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Once he’s pulled into their web it gets increasingly complex, and of course, tragic.

One of the things that makes the novel so great is its florid, poetic writing, and that’s something difficult to translate to film. Luhrmann gives it his best shot, though, by using a framing device that allows Nick to write directly about his time with Gatsby. It hints at the genius of Fitzgerald’s prose, but doesn’t quite get there.

Everyone’s so earnest, though, that it’s clear that they’re doing their best with the material — especially Luhrmann. You get the feeling he really, really wanted this to work. There are dazzling visuals, to be sure, and a lot of the heart-sickness within the characters is put across well, but ultimately Gatsby comes across more as an obsessive stalker than a lovestruck suitor. DiCaprio has become great at playing great men, but there’s something a little hard about him; he can’t bring Gatsby’s vulnerability forward nearly as easily as Fitzgerald does in his novel, and the story suffers for it. If Maguire had played him instead…

Still, even though the movie doesn’t quite capture Fitzgerald’s story, there’s a lot of other things to like about it. Luhrmann certainly has an eye for color and style, and the 20s fashions are pitch-perfect. He does wonders with the setting, depicting a New York that’s more a patchwork of neighborhoods than a cohesive city. The nouveau-riche village of West Egg is separated from old-money East End by a bridge and a valley of ashes, where the waste of the coal that powers the city is dumped. The physical distance emphasizes the emotional and social differences in every group you see so, so well.

Even failures can be worth watching, and Luhrmann’s ode to 20s excess is only a near-miss. I recommend it for those times where you feel you need more excitement in your life and need to remember drama does not equal happiness.

Rating: 3/5.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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The Anxious Rabbit

Self Improvement 150One of the reasons I believe Rabbit is such a helpful totem for me is that fear is such a strong emotion within me. I’m afraid all the time, of various things real and imagined, and that fear drives a great deal of my behavior. One of the lessons Rabbit teaches is how to move through that fear to engage with a broader, brighter world where danger lurks unseen just in the peripheries of your vision. You have to eat, you have to sleep, and you have to enjoy yourself sometime. There are moments of grace, quiet and contentment to be had in a scary and sometimes hostile world.

Over the summer I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in conjunction with ADHD. That diagnosis was a bit of a surprise to me, especially since over the past several months I had been feeling more frustrated than frightened; I was unable to make headway on most of the projects I’d been working on and I was moving into a new position at work that I know I would have trouble with if I couldn’t get my concentration issues under control.

Part of the treatment for the diagnosis is a group therapy class given by Kaiser Permanente every Thursday where we learn what Anxiety Disorder is, how it manifests in people, and what’s going inside your brain to cause this behavior. It’s been illuminating — both in my own tendencies and how paralyzing anxiety can be for people. I’ve met so many people in class who have trouble with dealing with work, or keeping good relationships, or even leaving their houses due to their anxiety. Just coming to the group is a major victory for them, but they can’t see it because they just want to be fixed, want to be normal.

From what I understand, Anxiety Disorder is kind of like an emotional allergic reaction. With allergies, your body has mechanisms to protect you from foreign bodies that go haywire on things that it should be desensitized to — like pollen, or dust, or certain foods. And the best way to deal with that is to either avoid the trigger or take an antihistamine to block the effects.

With Anxiety Disorder, your mind is set up to deal with threats in a certain way. It releases hormones that prepare you to flee the threat or fight it, and those hormones do all kinds of stuff from elevating your heart rate to making you breathe faster to take in more oxygen, to hyper-focusing your brain to deal with what’s in front of you. Only instead of the bear that’s charging towards you or the really important test you have to study for, it’s imagined scenarios about a presentation at work, or the story you’re writing, or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Most of the time we cannot avoid the triggers that cause this reaction, and most drugs that would lower our reaction have side effects that make us unable to do anything else — so we have to find a new way to deal with it.

For me, my anxiety is wrapped up in any activity where I have to show a decent level of competence, requires sustained concentration and involve other people being affected by what I do. Writing stories is all I’ve wanted to do for my entire life, but I just can’t bring myself to finish a story and put it out there. I’m so afraid of the process of writing — knowing that I won’t be able to provide the focus that the story deserves really stresses me out. Knowing that I’m not where I want to be with my writing prowess yet is so discouraging, because I’m 35 already and so many people write great novels in their 20s. Knowing that I would have to present my work to a world that is scary and sometimes hostile fills me with dread — what if it’s simply not good enough? What if people rip it to pieces? What if it’s deeply offensive in a way that I hadn’t anticipated? Or worst of all, what if something that means so much time and effort to me is just met with a gigantic figurative shrug and no one cares? It’s better not to do anything than to risk all of the fears I have about myself proven right.

I work in Silicon Valley on a very technical and complicated suite of software. I was brought on in an administrative capacity, but for my career to advance there I’ll need to move into a position with significantly more technical work. That terrifies me. I’m not tech-illiterate, but the amount of know-how that the job requires, the attention to detail and the ability to navigate thorny issues with angry customers is just paralyzing for me. My brain doesn’t work that way; as much as I would like it to, I just can’t remember a host of considerations to be effective with troubleshooting, and confrontation drains my social batteries almost immediately. The job would require me to learn a lot through doing in real-time, making mistakes and recovering from them, all while under pressure to perform at a level expected of world-class support. I’d be moving from dealing with mostly people (which, while draining, I’m more comfortable with) to dealing mostly with tech (where the consequences for a mistake can be catastrophic).

In these, two of the most important aspects of my life, my Anxiety Disorder has pushed me into a spiral I didn’t even see but kept me from moving forward. The situation causes an anxious thought, which triggers an outsized emotional reaction, which triggers a *physical* reaction that triggers another anxious thought, which sustains and solidifies that emotional reaction, which ratchets up the physical reaction, which…you get the idea.

Without realizing it, my reaction to these stressors has been to flee; I’ll get to work, take stock of what I should be doing that day and get freaked out enough by my workload that I retreat to something easier — a mindless task that’s more comfortable, Twitter or something else. The moment a story gets difficult or starts to diverge from where I had expected it to go, I’ll bail on it. Or I’ll muddle through it in fits and starts, unable to keep the story disciplined so it fulfills my worst fears and justifies me never trying it in the first place.

I’ve learned a lot through the Anxiety class about being mindful with my worries, knowing what kinds of thoughts send me into a spiral, and all the ways people with Anxiety Disorder tend to magnify or distort issues in order to justify the emotional/physical response. Catastrophizing the outcome, “fortune telling” about what terrible thing will most certain happen, “mind-reading” the reactions of those around us or what people are truly thinking all happen in varying ways, to various degrees.

Last week I learned how the fight/flight response tends to work in those of us who have trouble with anxiety, and what we can do about it. The fight response tends to be obsessive worry with a particular problem — working through every possible angle and outcome until everything is accounted for, which is a problem. Sometimes, even after you’ve put an issue to bed with a solution that covers all your bases, your brain can be really good at chewing on the bones of it over and over again. The flight response most often manifests in procrastination, sometimes aggressively so. If I’m worried about a project, it often feels like there’s a block in my brain that physically prevents me from working on it.

I’ve been taught that with Anxiety Disorder, the best thing to do is often the exact opposite of your initial impulse. If you’re a compulsive worrier, it’s best to try and take your mind off the problem (I don’t know how that works, but I’ll assume we’ll learn about that next week); if you’re a procrastinator, it’s best to lean in with the issue and face the thing that’s worrying you.

For example, with my job I’m worried that I will not be able to perform up to the standards of my managers and will face months of disappointed superiors, warnings and eventual termination. As an exercise, we were encouraged to visualize the worst-case scenario of that fear three times; each time, we would deconstruct our imaginations with an eye towards learning how we catastrophize.

I was surprised by just how awful my story was: because one of my superiors is also a friend, I imagined that the situation deteriorated our friendship to the point of dissolution. Because I was desperate and afraid, I’d lash out at work, and THAT put a strain on the relationship between my husband and I, and my superior and his partner. That put this strain on our entire social circle, and because I was so emotionally devastated I just could not deal with it. My world got smaller and smaller until I couldn’t even get out of bed, and by association my husband’s world got smaller — between taking care of me and our strained relationship, he was becoming increasingly alienated. I couldn’t get it together enough to do anything; I was too fragile to shoulder any of his problems, but he had to deal with all of mine. Our marriage suffered…and I had to bail on the rest of it. It became too painful.

When I was back in the room, I noticed how tight my chest was, how fast my heart was beating, how dry my mouth felt. Then I answered the questions: Is this likely to happen? Will thinking about it make it happen? If it *did* happen, what could I do to cope? What aspects of the situation had I misinterpreted that makes it less likely to happen? After that, I felt better, and the next visualization felt embarrassing for how melodramatic it was. I came out of it, refined the answers to my questions, and visualized a third time — by then, it was boring and silly. I knew how impossible the worst-case scenario would be, and had a better appreciation of the strength of my relationships and the love of my husband.

The tools I’m developing to deal with my anxieties — after learning how to clearly identify and understand them — are allowing me to lean in towards the things that scare me the most. I was able to move through my discomfort talking about mental illness earlier, and I have a lot more patience with myself when it comes to my writing. The progress is steadier, faster than it’s been for a long time. I can actually imagine a life in which I am capable of learning new things, becoming more competent with the things I want to do, actually reaching the goals I set for myself. It’s so great to learn about myself and take those lessons into direct action.

I’m still afraid, of course, but now I have a much better time with that fear. It doesn’t paralyze me the way it used to. And I have professional help to thank for that.

I understand that not everyone with Anxiety Disorder has this experience; there are so many people in my group who are affected a lot more strongly than I am, and will probably need furthere help over a longer period of time to deal with it. My heart goes out to them. I know how much my relatively mild version of it has hampered my life; it must be terrible to deal with much stronger fear day in, day out. Once you see how fear manifests through a broad swath of people, you notice it driving so many other behaviors — especially the ones I’ve found antagonistic or particularly angering. That allows me to see myself in these people a lot better, which allows me to check my anger and better understand what they might be going through. Understanding myself helps me to connect better with others.

I’m curious if anyone else out there has issues with anxiety. What about it do you find particularly challenging? Are there ways you’ve learned to cope with it? Are there experiences you would like to share? I’m all ears!

 

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My 35th Year

Myth 150Last Thursday I celebrated my 35th birthday. If I’m lucky, this puts me squarely in the territory of early middle age. That means that for the most part, I’m starting to have fewer days ahead of me than there are behind. It’s a sobering thought, but not a depressing one.

Unlike most I really don’t mind getting older. I think older people rule — they have a depth of knowledge and experience that can only be obtained one way, have learned what’s really important and what might not be worth paying attention to, have grown comfortable living in their own skin. I feel that happening to me as the days tick by; I keep learning new things, experiencing more things that I can compare to my previous experiences, and am more able to learn and accept my limitations. All of the regrets I have, instead of sending me into a paralyzing depression, are valuable lessons that help me strive for the ideals I treasure and the standards I’ve set for myself. I’ve made so many mistakes, and I continue to do so. But that is part of the imperfection that is my birthright.

I still have a long way to go before I feel like I’m where I want to be, but maybe it will always be that way. Maybe that’s what life is; a constant running towards a set of moving goalposts. And I know how futile that might sound, but it’s actually exciting — the goalposts only move once you’ve reached them to find they’re a signpost to the next thing. The idea that I’m standing in a place that was a goal somewhere in my 20s (stable job, self-confidence, a loving husband, a support network of smart, honest friends) is wonderful; and the idea that somewhere down the line, I’ll be that much further along towards places I’m only beginning to think are possible now is simply wondrous.

I’ve learned a lot this year — not only about myself, but about the world around me. I’m taking great strides in learning about my fear and overcoming it, and that is opening up an exciting range of new possibilities. I can sit with my discomfort far better than ever, which means I’m more willing to push through new experiences that make me feel stupid or uncertain (that means pretty much any new experience basically). I’ve learned that I probably have ADHD, and the treatment for that allows me to be focused and organized in ways I never thought I was capable of. I own a car, can drive all over town, and have (slowly and painfully) learned how to stop impulse buying. (Mostly.)

I’ve become more engaged with the world, both politically and personally. That engagement has pushed me further to the left at a time when it feels like my country is becoming more and more selfish, alienated and conservative. It’s more important to me than ever to try and connect people, to value understanding and compassion, even as it feels more hopeless and certain that we’re all going to die fighting for the few stunted scraps that will grow in polluted soil and poisoned water. I feel more passionate about the best of humanity even when I’m almost certain we will succumb to our own demons.

It reminds me of this parable: in the afterlife, all of us sit at a long table groaning under the weight of a tremendous feast. There are long forks attached to our left hand, long spoons fixed to our right. If we’re in hell, we cannot possibly feed ourselves; the utensils are way too long to bring the food to our mouths. If we’re in heaven, we’re feeding each other; we’re alleviating the suffering of our fellow man and accepting the charity of others. It’s the same exact situation — the only thing that changes is our reaction to it.

I want to devote my life to helping other people, however I can. I want to spend the time I have left helping people to understand themselves and one another, to feel less alone, to encourage them towards caring for themselves, their community and their world. I want to take all of the misery I’ve experienced and use it to ground myself in compassion for those who are having difficulty. I want to encourage active, positive change.

The personal is the political, of course, and vice versa. I believe that the best way to change the way our society operates is by reminding the people in it what their values are, and encouraging them to pursue that in a way that betters themselves and their fellow human beings. We can do this even if we hold different values in higher esteem. We can do this without judgment or hatred for our differences. We can feed our fellow humans whatever they want, and be glad to do it. That is what heaven looks like to me.

At the age of 35, these are my ideals. I know I will fail to live up to them; I know they might change by the time I reach 45, or 55, or 65. But that’s fine. What I do today will be the foundation for what I will have built in the next decade or two, and it’s taken me a while to realize just what that means. If I want to make sure that I’m one of those kick-ass old men who are smart and certain and passionate, then I’m going to have to build myself into that right now. One goal at a time, one day at a time, one small act at a time.

 

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