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Monthly Archives: December 2015

Kwanzaa 2015: Kuumba (Creativity)

Myth 1502015 has been an amazing year for me in a lot of different ways, but one of my absolute favorites is learning about the wonderful people who are putting themselves out there with their stories. This year I got to meet Nora Jemisin (author of “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”) at Writers With Drinks in San Francisco; I saw “Danger Word”, a short film put together by Tananarive Due at WorldCon — and I got to speak with her for a long time about black horror, writing and storytelling; I learned about Afro-Futurism and its history from Ajani Brown at WorldCon as well; I was introduced to Mark Oshiro, Arthur Chu, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Troy Wiggins, K. Tempest Bradford, Daniel Jose Older, Ta-Nehisi Coates, G. Willow Wilson and so many others who are shaping the discourse of what it means to be a minority in the science-fiction and fantasy space. There is a community of people out there working hard to show the world the power of a distinctive voice. It really has been amazing to discover this; it’s instituted a shift in my thinking about what I can do with my own writing, what I should be doing.

The principle we focus on today, the sixth day of Kwanzaa, is Kuumba or Creativity. I took this to mean that today we celebrate the different perspectives we have in viewing the world and how that translates to our stories, which I can totally get behind. Telling stories to make sense of our environment is one of the oldest and best things we do as humans, and I don’t think that its given the proper appreciation.

However, in researching up a bit on the theme for today, Kuumba can also mean “continuous improvement”. It’s not enough to just “get by”, or to “do all right”. We must keep striving for the ideals we set for ourselves — there’s always a purer, uncomplicated expression of it that we can aim for. Kuumba is having the insight to see the many different facets of Nia; to see the shapes and sides it can inhabit. How can we stretch our purpose even further to be better people, to encourage our communities to be better?

Ryan and I watched the final few episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” yesterday, and there was an exchange that blew me away. One of the characters is having a crisis about what to do in life, and someone asks her what she wants her life to be about. She says, “I want to end poverty,” and her friend says “Well, every choice you make in life should be in service to that.” It’s such a simple idea, so powerful, but so incredibly difficult.

Applied to myself, I have to think about how every decision I make serves my purpose — to connect people to each other, to make them feel more comfortable with their world, to be OK with the fact that change is constant and they can weather it. How do my stories serve that purpose? How do my blog entries? How can I creatively refine my actions to make sure they achieve that?

My favorite protagonists in stories are the paladins — not the people who sit on a mountain and reflect upon some ideal without having to make the attempt to engage it in the real world, but the people who come down off that mountain, who struggle to be the living embodiment of those ideals, who have to find ways to uphold it in the complicated and messy struggle of life. I believe that being an idealist means becoming intimately connected with failure. We’re imperfect creatures moving through an imperfect world, giving ourselves over to a perfect idea that we’ll never attain. But the struggle to achieve it means that we accomplish amazing things in the meantime.

Creativity is about so much more than telling stories, but that’s one of my favorite expressions of it. It requires creativity to make it through life, simply to improve yourself when there are restrictions and road-blocks in front of you. Creativity is one of the best expressions of intelligence, making connections that aren’t readily apparent, improving our understanding of life by viewing it from a radically different perspective. Creativity is a requirement for empathy; you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes without it.

It allows us to take ancient lessons and apply them to modern, more complicated times. It allows us to replace the lessons that don’t work anymore because our understanding of the world has changed so much. It allows us to accept the tragedies in life with the hope that we can move past them and become better people. It makes us better thinkers, more compassionate people, more connected and sensitive to what’s around us.

Over the next year, I will try to strengthen my creativity — I will do my best to find creative ways to deal with the challenges in front of me, and to deal with people I might find challenging as well. I want to live and breathe the stories I create, and the stories I take in. I will use my creativity to sharpen my purpose, to make my actions precise and efficient, to trim the fat in my life. I will use my creativity to make myself lean, powerful and focused.

I would just like to thank all of you for reading these essays this week; your response has been amazing and much appreciated. I was very nervous about tackling this — Kwanzaa does not have the best reputation among the people who know about it at all, and while I really wanted to make this holiday my own I was also sensitive of the history it comes with and the possibility that I wouldn’t understand or explain the principles well at all. This has been a wonderful learning process, and I’m so glad we got to go through it together.

Have a joyous Kwanzaa today, folks, and a wonderful New Year. I’ll check in with all of you tomorrow — probably after I’ve recovered from my hangover!

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Nia (Purpose)

Myth 150Why are we here? The answer to that question depends on who you are and what you believe. Many people believe that we’re here to reflect the glory of God and praise His creation; there are a lot of different ways to do that, but if it leads you to a more positive and compassionate life that’s a good thing. Others believe that there isn’t a purpose to life; we’re here to survive long enough to pass on our genes, make the human race stronger in the next generation, and that’s it. Again — if it leads you to a more positive and compassionate life, more power to you.

Personally, I believe there’s no inherent purpose to life, no grand design. But far from being a depressing realization, I find it’s actually liberating and exciting. Because that means we get to make our own, tailor-made to our temperament and experience. We can decide how we will spend our lives, what we want to leave behind as our legacy, and what we’ll be remembered for. The objective purpose of life is to find our own purpose, and once having done that, work towards it to the best of our ability.

The principle we’re focusing on today, the fifth day of Kwanzaa, is Nia or Purpose. According to Dr. Maulana Karenga, this means “to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.” That’s a concept I can get behind, actually — how awesome would it be to lift African civilization and the African diaspora to great renown? How great would it be for our culture to be known the world over as the most advanced, responsible and utopian in human history? The more I think about it, the more I would love to see more stories featuring Black Panther’s Wakanda — an Afrocentric culture that has dedicated itself to achieving as much as possible.

We don’t have many stories like that, in fiction or in real life. Positive steps towards uplifting our communities aren’t reported very often; peaceful protests, community clean-up initiatives, organized benefits don’t get the same kind of air time that disruptive things do. In America, stories featuring black people far too often revolve around death and poverty. In Africa, all we know of the continent is sickness, war, famine and death. We think of it as the continent of the Four Horsemen, a hellish landscape where there is never enough to eat and mortality is a daily fact of life.

Chimamana Ngozi Adichie tells us about the danger of a single story here. She writes about an Africa most people in the West never see, and encourages us to think about the people and the continent in a more holistic way. Yes, there are warlords and corruption, famine and sickness, but there are also people who are doing everything they can to make their world better. There are thinkers and creative people; friendly, hard-working dreamers; people who are proud of their community, tribe, country and continent. Africa is an immense place. It is diverse, wonderful, and so much more than most of us know.

The purpose I’ve found in life is to encourage people to become more connected with the world around them, more accepting of their fellow human beings, more comfortable with change and differences. What I want more than anything is to initiate and continue dialogues that allow us to know each other better, foster empathy that lets us step outside of our own experience to genuinely see things from another perspective. I want to understand you. And I want you to understand people like me. Humanity is a social species, and we are at our best when we come together for a common purpose.

So much about the black experience — and the human experience — is about alienation and disenfranchisement. The most dangerous thing I see about our future is giving ourselves over to apathy and disconnection, this idea that “as long as I’ve got mine, that’s all that matters.” We do not exist alone. We exist inextricably connected to an immense and complicated framework of socio-political, environmental and interpersonal factors. We are affected by the actions of our fellow man. Everything we do affects someone else.

A lot of us who have grown up being bullied or ostracized internalize the idea that we don’t matter. We grow up really believing we’re alone, and that it’s entirely possible no one would miss us if we disappeared. We think that the consequences of our actions, such as they are, are ours alone and no one else has to worry about them. We feel so powerless and small, and can’t possibly understand how each and every one of us has the power to shape our world — and the responsibility to use that power wisely.

My purpose is to use that power to the most positive end I can manage. I’m still learning the full shape and force of it, and I’m still learning the limits of it. I still need to learn how to use it responsibly. But that’s the thrust of my existence; I have my entire life to learn this. And I’m genuinely excited to do that.

What’s your purpose? How are you fulfilling it? What are you doing to contribute to the restoration of greatness for the human race? This isn’t a judgement question: I really want to know. What do you think about your purpose?

Have a solid Kwanzaa, everyone. I’ve been sick for the past few days, but developing a writing habit in the mornings has been something I very much look forward to. I’ll check in with all of you tomorrow.

 
 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Myth 150Want to know something really great? Read the Wikipedia entry on Ujamaa here. Julius Nyerere developed a political and economic blueprint for lifting Tanzania out of poverty back in the 60s. The idea was to remove barriers and dividing lines between the people within Tanzania and replacing them with incentives to fostering a national identity with a focus on shared wealth and community. It didn’t quite work — mostly due to circumstances beyond Nyerere’s control — but it was a noble experiment that the hip-hop scene in Tanzania is trying to bring back.

Here in the United States and Western parts of the African diaspora, Ujamaa is the principle we focus on today, the fourth day of Kwanzaa. While it doesn’t quite go as far as promoting the African socialism of Tanzania, it does encourage the idea of cooperative economics; this builds on the concept of Ujima quite well, turning the social idea into a financial blueprint. We are meant to build and maintain our own stores, shops and businesses, and profit from them together. In black America, we go into businesses that serve our people and community, and small (or large) business owners use that generated wealth for the good of the neighborhoods they’re in.

This could mean shopping at the local corner store when you can instead of heading to a convenience store chain like 7-Eleven; it could mean choosing hair and skin care products made for us, buy us; it could mean supporting black artists and creative people by buying and promoting the work that offers us reflections of our culture that are more nuanced, positive and engaging. Ujamaa is an immensely broad concept, and one of the great things about it is there are so many different ways to practice it.

One of the great joys for me this year was the discovery of the small business online and the popularization of sites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Patreon. It was a great way for small businesses and artists to make their pitches directly to their customers, and for the customers to respond in kind with a financial statement. Each donation or pledge told these people that we believe in them and their work, and we would like to see it come to fruition. In gaming and fandom circles, there are now artists who can do what they do full-time because they now have a mechanism that allows them to be supported by an appreciative and engaged audience. For me, these sites are a wonderful way to bring Ujamaa into the 21st century.

It also means encouraging responsible use of the wealth we create. One of the big difficulties in impoverished communities in general is the understanding of how to use money wisely. I’m not talking about poor people buying televisions or tennis shoes; I’m talking about finding ways to make what little money we have work harder for us. When a financial windfall comes, we’re often faced with the choice of getting ahead on bills (which really sucks all the joy out of having unexpected money) or doing something fun with it. All too often, there’s a sense that the game is rigged and any effort taken to get ahead will ultimately be wasted. And to be sure, there are all kinds of ways the poor are unfairly taxed in this country. But come on — black people in this country have had to maintain ourselves during slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and the continuing structural discrimination that makes it so hard for us to get a leg up in this world. With time, patience, effort and intelligence, we can beat that too.

This year, I vow to continue what I’ve started in 2015 — to seek out, promote and shop at minority-owned and -operated businesses. Because I’m such a geek, it’s been a genuine pleasure to find creators of color whose works I’m totally down with. Are you aware of The Pack, a graphic novel about African werewolves? Or the many, many, MANY sci-fi/fantasy writers of color out there? I’ll talk a bit about these folks in a couple of days, but if nothing else 2015 has really opened my eyes about what minorities are doing in genre spaces and just how exciting it is.

I’ll also do my best to be smarter about managing/eliminating my debt this year, and making sure that my money is going places that help me, my family, my community and my people. I’m very fortunate to be in the financial situation I’m in, and I could be doing better things with it. I’ll be devoting time and energy to figuring out how.

As always, Ujamaa doesn’t JUST have to be focused on the African diaspora. We all belong to communities, close and online, that could use a bit of care. How are we using our money wisely? How are we promoting good in our lives through our dollars?

Have a solid Kwanzaa today, everyone. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2015 in Better Living Through Stories, Politics

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

Myth 150The principle we focus on today, this third day of Kwanzaa, is Ujima. It’s a word that points to the idea of collective work and responsibility, which is a concept that I feel is missing from so many of our communities. One of the things that binds a society together is this very ideal, that the problems of one of us are the problems of all of us. If just one of our number is struggling to feed themselves, we are all impoverished. If one of our children is having a difficult time in school, we’re all concerned with educating him. If one of our people is misunderstood, rejected, alone, then it’s a failing of our community. Ujima, to me, means that we are our brother’s keeper. His happiness is ours, his sorrows are ours. No one is alone; we’re all in this together.

I think this principle is a little different for me because I’ve been on the outskirts of the black community pretty much all my life. I’ve never felt a sense of kinship with my family or my neighbors growing up, and even now, as I’m making the first tentative steps back towards the community, I feel hesitant about it. I am very different. What if those differences are too great and I find myself pushed to the outside again? One of our blind spots is the treatment of those who have a different sexual orientation or gender identity. Gender roles tend to be rigidly defined in our black communities, and transgressions of those roles are not looked upon favorably.

Personally, I struggle with the idea of being my brother’s keeper when that brother has distanced himself from me because of who I love. I find it hard to be a part of a community that spends so much energy ostracizing people like me who don’t “act like a man,” or who still uses “faggot” and “gay” as one of the worst verbal attacks you can make on a guy. How do I take responsibility for the problems of my fellow man when I *am* their problem? How do I embody the concept of Ujima?

Like so many things in life, all we can do is the best we can do. Even though I may be on the fringes of my community — even though I may never be fully accepted — I’m still invested in the problems and issues that face it. I still want to see my fellow black Americans live in a country where they are treated equally, where the institutions of our government and society is working to remove the discriminations that were baked into their foundations, where economic and intellectual poverty is not a default and the full expanse of the American dream is available to us. I want what’s best for my people; if that feeling is not returned, I have no control over that.

This year I’ve learned so much more about the myriad problems facing the black community. Our children tend to be disciplined more frequently and more harshly in our schools; we’re taught from a very young age that the authority structure will come down harder on us than it will for other kids. Our women frequently don’t have a place at any table but their own when it comes to issues of equal pay, sexual liberation and safety, the respect of their colleagues and inclusion in art and entertainment. Our men face the actions of a society that fears and hates them; we’re less likely to get good jobs, more likely to be arrested, brutalized and killed by the police, only see ourselves on TV as criminals, toughs or stereotypical smoothies. There are issues we face in just about every aspect of American society, and even if those issues don’t directly affect me it’s my responsibility to help solve them.

The concept of Ujima can be taken outside of that context, too. In the broader geek space that I inhabit, it’s difficult for us to band together to take care of problems that affect our spaces. So many fandoms have become toxic in-groups that violently reject anything that threatens the mono-culture people insist on maintaining. Women in gaming, sci-fi/fantasy entertainment, costuming and so many other areas have to face down so much bile just for trying to enjoy the same things we do, or demanding the same respect given to others. It’s a serious problem, and as fellow geeks Ujima calls on us to make it ours and fix it already.

Our communities will not cohere unless we learn to have empathy for our own. I talked about how self-determination may lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves yesterday, but we must also understand how that carves out different paths for the people in our community. Not everyone in our group will like the same things, or like the same thing for the same reasons. We have to strive to understand and respect that, to acknowledge the challenges our brothers and sisters face, to reach out and help them overcome them when we can.

But how do we do that? I’m still figuring that part out, to be honest. I feel I’ve taken the first step just by being educated on the work to be done and shouldering some of the responsibility for it. Where do I go from here? Do I become more socially active? Do I join groups that have organized to advance solutions to these problems? Which problems do we focus on first? That requires a lot more thinking, and I’ll do my best to come up with *something* to answer those questions.

For now, I’m in this with all of you. There’s work to do. Let’s pitch in to get it done, yeah? Have a joyous and wonderful Kwanzaa today, and I’ll check in with you all tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2015 in Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Myth 150I am a gay black man. I am a Zen Buddhist. (Thank you, Kevin.) I am agnostic — I don’t know if there is a God, but I don’t believe that being a good person should be dependent on that. I am a writer, gamer, geek, lover of animals, myths, and the intersection between them. I’m a morning person. I drink coffee. I believe that in order to be at my best I must be stripped down and simplified to my essence. That requires the very difficult work of scrubbing away decades of gunk that has been built to protect me from the hardships of life. (I’m stripping a cast-iron skillet over the holiday, so maybe my metaphors are going to be reflecting that today.)

I didn’t always believe this, of course. When I was a child — well, I was still called gay, and a nerd, but the connotations were negative. As I grew up, I was called a pussy, a weirdo, an Oreo — black on the outside, but white on the inside. As a defense mechanism, I took all the terrible things people said about me and turned them into positives:

“Yeah, I’m a pussy — but that means I don’t get my ass kicked on the regular or have to worry about being shot.”

“I’m a weirdo, sure, but that means I get to think about stuff that you never will.”

“Oreos are fucking delicious, and everyone wants to have them nearby. I’m crunchy AND I’m sweet, you jackass.”

These days, I don’t even engage. Of course I care about what people think about me, but at the end of the day I know who I am and what I stand for. I’ve put in the time and the work to strip myself bare, see what lies beneath my face and put myself back together to try and be the best reflection of that. It’s an ongoing process, and I will never be finished with it — that’s life, that’s self-improvement. But it is one of the most important and worthwhile things you will ever do.

The principle we focus on today, the second day of Kwanzaa, is Kujichagulia — self-determination. I love this concept; the Swahili word is so much fun to say, but it’s also one of those things that tends to work in a spiral. There are always new ways to name and define yourself, and because you’re a living being who exists in a complex and ever-evolving society, the relationship between who you are, who you want to be, and how that relates to other people demands that you constantly check yourself. But first, let’s start with the basics.

Self-determination, at its most simple, is answering these three questions:

Who am I? No really, who am I? It’s a simple question that is almost impossible to answer. You must seek and understand the core of yourself in order to do that…but is there a core there? Are we actually the tension that exists between the various aspects that make up who we are? Am I only myself because I am gay, black, Zen, geek, etc.? Am I only a series of definitions, a collection of names I have given myself? Or am I something beyond and beneath that, some unnamable, unknowable kernel? If I can’t name it or know it, how can I define it or ensure its existence? What do I think about all of this? Who is the one that is doing the thinking?

Am I really who I say I am? Determining who you are is a process that I don’t think you may ever get to the bottom of. You do the best you can with the information you can, and then you try to confirm it. I think this question forces you to take a look at your actions; if you really are who you say you are, then you would behave in ways consistent with that, correct? What are your beliefs, and how do your actions reflect them?

It can be a bit of a gut check to realize that you behave in ways that are inconsistent with what you believe. But it’s also necessary to face that down and make the changes you need to in order to re-align yourself. For example, if I look within myself and find that I’m not actually following the Noble Eightfold Path, then it’s on me to figure out what that means and how I can work my way back there. This may mean painful changes, or stepping outside of a comfort zone, but knowing yourself and being yourself is more important. This is a sacrifice that must be made for the right to self-determination.

Am I all that I ought to be? So we’ve worked out who we believe we are and determined that how we act accurately reflects that. But is that enough? Of course not. We could always strive to be something more, something better — to embody our beliefs more closely and carefully. Could I be more than who I am? What do I need to do in order to get there? Self-determination is more than knowing who you are — it’s knowing where you are going and what it takes to get there.

It is vital to know ourselves, especially as black people. My ancestors came from western and southern Africa. Somehow, they were put on ships by men who took their destinies from them and replaced them with the Middle Passage. When they arrived, they were stripped of their clothing, their cultures, their families and their very names. They were given other names, other religions, other jobs and relationships. Even after they were freed, they were told that they were lesser than their fellow Americans, forced to confine themselves to the poorest neighborhoods and work the worst jobs. This is a process that continues down to this day.

In our media we are given a narrative, a single story. Our men are called thugs and criminals; even the “good guys” are tough and physical. Our women are crazy, loud, outspoken but unintelligible; they speak almost entirely in slang and are predominantly concerned about hair, makeup, clothes and men. Our children are told they don’t have the intelligence to make it in American society, that the best they can hope for is to be athletes, drug dealers, or prisoners. Our communities are impoverished and intellectually stagnant, but the fight for better is called “disruptive,” “obnoxious,” and “unnecessary.”

We must reject that story, and find our own. Black men are smart, courageous, confused, scared and just as soft as anyone else. Black women are incredible; tough, intelligent, beautiful, complicated. Our children are precious, each a kaleidoscope of possibilities — they could be astronauts, scientists, businesspeople, politicians, artists and activists. We joined American society being told who we were and what we were, but there is no reason that needs to continue. We are who we are, and only we know what that is.

As individuals and as a culture, we must define ourselves to be active participants in our own destinies. We must fight the pressure to be defined or named by other people; we accept or reject terms based on our own principles. That is Kujichagulia. That is life.

Have a wonderful Kwanzaa today, everyone. Know yourselves. I’ll check in with you tomorrow!

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Umoja (Unity)

Myth 150We live in extremely divided times. Here in the United States, the population is split by race, income, politics, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, hierarchy of values and so many other things. Across the world, it feels like the same; if it’s not religion, it’s ethnicity. If it’s not that, it’s national background. If it’s not that…you get the picture. On a social level, most of us define ourselves by what we’re opposed to, instead of what we believe in.

On the Internet it feels especially true. One of the great things about finding a community online is the realization that we’re not alone — that no matter who we are, where we come from or what we believe, chances are good that there’s a group out there for us somewhere. It can be life-changing to find your tribe, especially when you’ve struggled to find somewhere you belong in real life. But this year the language of our communities seems to be one of rejection; we define our in-groups almost exclusively by determining who we collectively damn.

This negativity-focused basis for forming our collective societies is a troubling one, because it trains us to belong to something by vehemently rejecting those we feel shouldn’t. And what that encourages is an increasingly rabid rejection dynamic; when someone we used to agree with us doesn’t about the most recent topic of our anger, we get to turn on them. One of the things that gave me most pause about the way we unify online in 2015 was the controversy surrounding a fan-artist for Steven Universe, and the way the community turned on the creators and producers of the show when they stepped in to tamp things down. Is this what it means to be a part of a niche in the 21st century? Do we have to scream loudest in order to secure our space in these places?

The theme for Kwanzaa this year is “Embracing Kwanzaa’s Principles and Practice: Creating and Celebrating the Good”. I know, a holiday maybe shouldn’t be so serious-minded if we want people to hold it in their hearts, but I find the opportunity to create a ritual around introspection and re-commitment to our values at the end of the year to be a great one. Kwanzaa definitely has its work cut out for it if it wants to be adopted on a wider basis, but I love it.

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration and focus on the Seven Principles of the Black Community here in the United States, though the institution has spread to at least Canada. It was started in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, as a counter-holiday to Christmas and the commercialization of it by the dominant culture. It’s meant to be a holiday that focuses on the experience of the African diaspora, but so many people in the black community are alienated for various reasons, it’s very hard for it to gain traction in a meaningful way. I’ve never met anyone who actually celebrates Kwanzaa, but now that I’m reconnecting with my heritage I thought it would be an excellent way to take something from the community that resonates with me and make it my own.

Umoja is the principle we focus on today, the first day. It means “Unity” in Swahili, a native African language predominantly spoken in the southeast of the continent. Above everything else, it’s good to remember that a strong community is a powerful thing; even though we each have individual power to affect change in the world, when we get together and rise up with a single purpose, amazing things can happen.

Which is why it troubles me that so many of our communities these days are so singularly-focused on pushing their weight behind excoriating the things that have offended or opposed us. Yes, rising up as a community and saying in no uncertain terms that certain behaviors and ideas have no place in modern society is very useful, but when so much of our time and energy is spent tearing things down we have to understand why people look at our groups as a destructive influence.

I belong to many different groups: I am a black man, and a gay man, and a Buddhist, and a comic book fan, and a tabletop RPG gamer. I’m socially and economically leftist. I believe that human beings are a social species, and the goal of our institutions should be to make sure every individual — no matter who they are — can find their place to be productive, whole and happy. I believe in unity, and I oppose the things that hinder that ideal, or makes it harder to achieve.

I believe that we have to take a long look at the communities we belong to and think of how we encourage unity within that community. Sure, we know what we will not stand for, and it’s important to be vocal about that. But how do we encourage the things we DO stand for? How do we make our communities a welcoming place for newcomers? How do we resolve conflicts within our communities in ways that make them stronger? What positive things can we do to create and celebrate the good within the groups we belong to?

It’s important to draw lines in the sand when our dignity, our rights and our lives are threatened. I absolutely understand that. But it is also important to show, by our examples, the best our community can be. We must show others — and remind ourselves — what we’re fighting for together, not just what we’re uniting against.

I’ll do my best to make sure the groups I belong to are united together for ideals that make our world better. We can change the world, if we work to make it a place where people see how they can make worthy contributions to it. No one changes for the better by being shunned and ostracized. If we need to push someone away because of their ideas and actions, we also need to show them how we can be reunited.

Have a joyous Kwanzaa today. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

(Personal) Choices

Self Improvement 150It’s that time. Best of the year lists are popping up all over the pop-culture and entertainment blogs. Books, movies, TV shows, art installations, plays and musicals, even memes are being reviewed so we can try to make sense of the past twelve months. We spent how much time obsessed over that back in February? What really were the best things ever last year, now that we’ve had time to temper our breathless enthusiasm? What are we actually embarrassed for even liking at this point?

2015 was a big year for me, personally. I made the decision to speak up for causes that I’m passionate about in ways I never had before, and that opened up connections to folks online I’m so glad I got to make. I’ve shared my perspective as a gay black Buddhist who spends a lot of time pretending to be a jackalope online, my experience with my mental illness, my opinions and fears about telling stories. I’ve stepped into black geek, social justice and furry writer spaces, and I’ve found that those communities are homes I’d been searching for all my life. It’s been a transformative time.

I’ve had to change, personally and professionally. At my day job changes in ownership and company structure forced a shift in my position, and I found myself learning technical skills that have always frightened the living shit out of me. Months later, that fear is still with me — but I’ve learned how to make peace with it. I know how to use that discomfort to sharpen my focus, to be careful, to pay attention to what’s necessary. The lessons I’ve learned from that experience I’m trying to apply to the rest of my life.

December is upon us, and we’re all making one mad dash through the last holidays of the year. It feels like we’re rushing through a time that we should be taking slow; the days are short, the nights are long and cold, well-built for silent contemplation. I’ve spent so much of my life letting my reflexes take over how I act on what I think and feel. If fear motivates my behavior, I’ve often let it with no questions asked. If anxiety demands comfort, I indulge in it. So many of my actions have roots in an automatic stimulus. I feel x, I do y. It didn’t matter for a long time that these reflexes no longer serve a useful purpose, or worse, hold me back. I use them because I’ve always used them.

I’ve been making a persistent effort to live deliberately. I’ve become more consistent with my meditation, and taking the awareness cultivated on the bench throughout my day. I’m still new at this, though, so I fail quite often. When I’m overwhelmed force of habit reasserts itself and I fall back on those same ingrained behaviors. But I’ve gotten better at recognizing when I end up on those tracks, stopping for a minute to ask myself if I want to be there, and repositioning myself when I need to. As with everything, it’s a work in progress. But progress is being made.

Everything we do throughout our lives is a choice that we’ve made. It can be difficult to take stock of our options and pick the best one, especially in the many moments that make up our days. Emotions demand action, we’re often pressed for time, and our emotional reflexes have been well-honed. But it’s helpful to double-check whether they’re still useful after a certain point. We’re often in situations where our first response — our reflexive one — doesn’t fit, and it’d be better to go with something else. It’s hard, slow work to do, but that awareness pays dividends sooner than I thought.

I’ve learned a lot more about myself this year. Learning about how my anxiety is on a fairly sensitive trigger helped me realize all the ways it influenced my decisions; I’m now working on consistently short-circuiting that system to make smarter choices. Learning that I have issues with ADHD has allowed me to recognize that there are certain things my brain will just never be good with. Far from simply letting myself off the hook with that, it encourages me to work harder (and more efficiently) by knowing I need to rely on something external instead of my own brain. Timers, to-do list and calendars have become essential; follow-through is not something I’m great with, so finding ways to make sure I finish what I start needs to be baked into every process. In this situation, knowing my limitations hasn’t made me feel lesser; it’s allowed me to work within and beyond them to do a lot more than I thought I could.

This year has been great. I’ve made a lot of progress, and I feel I see myself and the world around me a bit more clearly than before. But there’s still work to do. I can be better still about how I manage my time. I could be more efficient with my projects, work through them more quickly by making sure I’m on task when I’ve set myself to be. Learning to be comfortable with my fear and anxiety is never something that will end. It’s a project I’ll be working on all of my life. But the work becomes more familiar with time and practice. Maybe it won’t be easier, but I’ll get better at it.

And working on the connections that I continue to make will be a big focus next year. Now that I’ve finally found and understand community, working hard to be a productive part of them is something I really want to do. I want to support my neighbors, both in the real world and online. What are the best ways of doing that? How can I help through my perspective and experience? What can I do to help us be better?

I’m so grateful for this year, even though it’s been difficult at times. I’m thankful because it’s brought me closer to so many of you. I’m really looking forward to the work of continuing what I’ve started here next year. I’m really looking forward to helping bring us all closer together.

 

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(Friday Fiction) Br’ers – Break

Fandom 150And here’s the next little bit. Still figuring out the setting while trying to make connections between Greggory’s experience and experiences I’ve had being a “black face in a white space”. This one stems from SO MANY TIMES being the only black guy with the feeling of “you don’t belong here” heavy in the air.

Oliver’s Cafe had a strawberry and cheese danish that made Gregg salivate just thinking about it. In the long weeks and months that followed his transformation, it was one of the things on a small list that he brought to mind whenever he needed something to look forward to. Under quarantine, his diet was restricted to little more than hay and various vegetables — he could eat them, but they weren’t very appetizing.

The doctors and scientists discovered that it wasn’t just the features that were a mixture of animal and man; his palate and nutritional needs had changed as well. He was technically still an omnivore, but his stomach frequently revolted a meat-rich meal and he found the smell of cooked flesh alarming, almost disgusting. Over time, once the shock of his new body had worn off, he found he preferred vegetables and fruits; a little bit of dairy here and there; and a powerful craving for sugar. Six months ago, Greggory had never been one for sweets. Now, he couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

The cafe was on Calvert St., right on the way to work. Greggory would stop there every morning to pick up a large cup of coffee and a danish, and this was his first day back. As he squeezed out of his small coupe and made his way across the small parking lot towards the little row of shops Oliver’s was nestled between, he felt himself tensing. This was supposed to be a small step towards normalcy, the first brick placed to put his life back in order. When he opened the door, he realized it simply wouldn’t be that simple.

A sea of faces turned to stare at him. The room went quiet except for the folk-rock playing over tinny speakers. Greggory felt the burn of thirty pairs of eyes all centered on him; half the expressions were surprise, even shock — the other half looked vaguely displeased. He had to imagine all of them were wondering what he was doing here.

Greggory smiled and lifted a hand. He waved clawed fingers at the gathered, and made his way in. He had no idea how he looked, but he wished more than anything people would stop staring at him. He was used to being the only man of his kind in one of these spaces, or so he thought; here, the difference burned at him, seeped into his skin in a way that made him feel acutely self-conscious. He felt like a foreign element contaminating the purity of a scene.

The tightness in his chest didn’t ease when the barista smiled at him and asked, “Hey, what can I get started for you?”

He pulled out the tablet tucked under an arm and opened his writing app. His pointer claw acted as a natural stylus, but it still felt strange dragging the point of it over his screen. It wasn’t something he thought he could ever get used to, even though his doctor swore he would. At least, until he relearned how to speak.

<<It’s Gregg.>> He wrote, then showed it to the barista.

Her eyes flashed with recognition, surprise, and sympathy in the span of a second. “Oh! Greggory, hey!! It’s so good to see you!” Other workers behind the counter glanced in his direction when they heard the name. Some smiled weakly and nodded, some went quickly back to work, their expressions unreadable. “I’m so sorry about…” Her voice trailed off, suddenly unsure.

<<It’s OK. I’m fine. Hope you’re fine too.>>

“Oh yeah, I’m good! It’s gotten a lot busier here since they finally finished the construction.” The barista glanced behind him, and her smile faded. “What can I get you?”

Greggory flicked an ear behind him and heard one…three…four people shuffling in line. He couldn’t see their expressions, but he didn’t need to. His chest felt tighter. He wiped his app and started writing quickly.

“What’s that floating in the air?”

“I think that’s fur.”

“OK, that’s gross.”

He tried to ignore that as he wrote, flattening his ears against his head to keep from hearing any more. <<I’d like a large coffee, two sugar, three cream. And a strawberry danish.>>

The barista — her name was Karen, according to her name tag, and Greggory felt a small pang of shame for not remembering — smiled at him, glanced at the line, and nodded. “I got you. Is that for here or to go?”

“I hope it’s to go,” someone said behind him, a little louder.

Greggory’s ear flicked up of its own accord, and his nervousness soured into anger. He was tempted to tell her that it would be for here, damned being late for work, and then sit in the middle of the cafe. He’d pour his coffee into a saucer and lick it up like a God-damned animal, lift up his shirt to scratch his furry belly, pluck out loose hairs and let them flow in the air…

<<To go.>>

Karen gave him a friendly and sympathetic smile, and it lightened his mood a little. “OK. Just hang on and your order will be waiting for you at the end of the bar.”

Greggory stepped out of line and waited near the condiments. He could feel the eyes of people in line on him, saw people look up from where they were seated as he passed by. He did his best to ignore them, kept his ears folded, but he couldn’t help but hear the conversation of the next person in line.

“So you’re serving those animals in here now, huh?” The man was tall and white, with grey hair and blue eyes that looked down a strong, proud nose. Greggory imagined himself punching it.

“He’s a paying customer here, just like you are.” Karen’s voice had a hard edge that he had never heard before. “What do you want?”

“Nothing, with that attitude. I’ll get my coffee somewhere else.” The man turned to leave. “Your manager will be getting a call from me.”

The man glared at Greggory as he left. Greggory did his best to look anywhere else but at him.

“Here’s your coffee dude.” Another barista slipped a cup towards him, along with his pastry. “I gave you two pastries because…you know. Welcome back.”

Something in Greggory’s heart broke open. He perked his ears, stared at the young, skinny Indian man across the counter, and nodded. He couldn’t say how much he appreciated it, but he hoped the other man knew it just the same.

He walked briskly to his car, opened the door and tossed his pastries into the passenger seat. He barely managed to fumble the keys into the ignition before tears started to flow. It took him ten minutes before his vision cleared enough that he trusted himself leaving the parking lot.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Furries, Self-Reflection, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Wednesday Fiction) Br’ers – Orientation

I wanted to find a way to marry two of my interests, and came up with this setting. I’m still figuring things out, so the snippets will be a little rough for the next two weeks, but I thought it was time to share it. 

Greggory looked in the mirror and saw an alien staring back at him. There were big brown eyes spaced too far apart. There was a broad flat nose with nostrils he didn’t recognize. There were those strange lips, those big ears, features that couldn’t possibly reflect the way he saw himself. He opened his mouth wide and saw prominent incisors — four on the top, four on the bottom, stacked two deep. There were large gaps on either side, and past those he could dimly see his cheek teeth; premolars and molars that were strange and sharp. His canine teeth were gone.

It had been six months since the shift. One day, Greggory woke up and he realized he was different. His brown skin was replaced with a thick pelt of cinnamon fur; his fingernails thickened into digger’s claws; his features had taken on leporine traits. He was the same size, just under six feet tall, but his enormous ears extended his height by a foot or so and when he stood on the toes of long, broad, powerful feet he could tower over most anyone. A lot of good it did him. Despite the strangeness of his look, people weren’t frightened of a six-foot rabbit.

One in ten people in his neighborhood had undergone the same transformation. Some had turned into raccoons, hares, squirrels — he had even heard that there were birds that hadn’t been released from the CDC just yet. Others had become something fiercer — dogs of various breeds, black bears, cougars. He had even heard of a lion or two, though he hadn’t seen them for himself. Not for the first time he wondered how he would react if he spotted one walking down the street. Would some alien instinct take over? Would something lodged deep within his new brain leap up and take over, force him into running before he could stop himself?

A shiver raced up his spine, and he watched the fur of his reflection puff out. He sighed and brushed his chest, his arms, his shoulders. Six months with this fur coat and it still hadn’t gotten too much faster to groom himself. There were many days where he would have given anything for his pelt to simply fall away, but chances are that would make him look even funnier than he already did.

“You done in there?” A voice popped from just behind the closed door of the bathroom. It was followed immediately by a series of knocks. “Some of us have to get ready for work too, you know.”

Greggory grunted his response. He swiped his tongue over the strange shape of his mouth, feeling the contours of his jaw, his palate, his gums. He had been told that he would have to re-learn how to speak; according to the many, many doctors and scientists he had seen he should be able to do it, but it would be an uphill climb. Just one of those things he would have to do in order to re-integrate himself into society. But for now, he was voiceless.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” The voice was annoyed and confused. “Is that a ‘yes I’m coming out’ grunt or a ‘leave me alone’ grunt?”

He looked at the long ear in his reflection swing towards the door. He saw that odd face crease in consternation. It was expressive, but in so many different ways. His mood has moved from the curve of his cheeks and knit of his brow towards the bounce of his whiskers, the twitch of his nose, the movement of his ears. He had learned how it all worked, but his family was still figuring everything out.

Maybe that’s why his mother didn’t recognize the swept back tilt of his ears when he threw open the bathroom door, or the way his whiskers flared as his nose wrinkled and then fell into an agitated beating rhythm. She simply looked at those passive, dark eyes staring down at her, took a step back and glanced at the brush in his hand.

“Looks like you’re almost finished.” She was trying to keep her voice even, he could tell. “I don’t know why you have to spend so long brushing yourself. Ain’t nobody going to see you.”

Greggory simply grunted. He couldn’t easily tell her that it wasn’t about what other people could see, it was about how he would feel. It was bad enough that he had to go back out into the world before he felt ready; he didn’t want to do it feeling disheveled and slovenly, too.

Something must have passed through, because her expression softened. She reached up and brushed her hand through his whiskers, set it on his cheek. He flinched; those fingers brought an explosion of sensation through him and he was still trying to figure out how to deal with that. He only relaxed when she stood on her toes and kissed his chin. It felt weird to him; he could only imagine how it must have felt to her.

“You look fine, son. Breakfast is on the table. I…didn’t have what the paper said to feed you, but I didn’t think it would matter. You’re still my boy, right? Ain’t nothing changed.” She smiled, then pushed beside him to slip into the bathroom.

He glanced at the clock; he’d need to be out the door in ten minutes if he wanted to have a prayer of making it into work on time. His clothes went on fast; a loose polo shirt that didn’t aggravate his fur too much and a pair of shorts that fit a bit snug around his thighs. The sandals took the longest time; he still wasn’t quick working those leather straps with his clawed fingers.

Breakfast was not going to happen. He smelled the stench of bacon and eggs before he even got to the dining room, and his eyes glanced over the plate in vain for a piece of fruit or a vegetable. Greggory left a note next to the plate before grabbing his things and slipping out of the door. If he left now, he hoped, he might be able to pick up something on the way.

When his mother stepped out of the bathroom, she saw an untouched hill of scrambled eggs and bacon on the side, with a small piece of paper next to it.

“No eggs. No meat. My stomach can’t handle that any more. I’m sorry. I love you. Later.”

 

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2015 in Furries, Writing

 

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(Personal) Going Back to Go Forward

Myth 150My childhood was spent in a procession of hostile places. At home, I had a severe, distant mother and an alcoholic father to tend with; my sister got into trouble a lot and ran away from home several times, so there was always something terrible going on there. At school I was a poor, shy kid who had no social skills and a meek disposition. I got along with the teachers well enough, but that only made life worse with the students. At my church, I was a “spiritual orphan”, more a pity project for elders in the congregation than a colleague and certainly one of the least popular kids there. I spent most of my life growing up with few friends and a certainty that I didn’t fit in any of the places that surrounded me.

So, when I discovered the Internet and the furry community it was a lifeline for me. There was a whole community of people out there who shared my interests and mindset, no matter how strange it was. After I graduated high school, I worked two mall jobs and spent what little free time that gave me talking to people online. I would often get home after midnight, wake up at 6 or 7 AM and catch the bus to do it all again.

When I went to college, I accepted my sexuality. When I came out to my mother and she rejected me, I knew that was my last link to my community gone. I would absolutely be disfellowshipped from my congregation, and after that my mother would more than likely be encouraged not to speak to me. My sister and I weren’t close at that point, and I hadn’t developed a strong bond with anyone else in my family. I left home in the summer of 1999 and I haven’t been back since.

For a long time, it was hard to think of myself as a black man. I felt thoroughly rejected by my tribe and just as wholeheartedly accepted by a new one. I’d rather think of myself as a geek and a furry because that was the community I had jumped in with. And they’re still a huge part of my life — I love the furry fandom, and I love geeking out with other people who love science-fiction, urban/modern fantasy and post-apocalyptic stories. This is still my tribe, and I feel more comfortable here than I ever have anywhere else.

But over the past year or so, with my discovery of the black geek community online and my slow but steady connection with black geeks through Twitter and the blogosphere, it’s occurred to me that the black part of my identity is still there, will always be there, and continues to wield its influence over me. I’ll see social dynamics differently than most people, and my experiences of being marginalized in both the dominant culture and my little minority tribe will continue to have some bearing on the way I see the world. To deny that would be dishonest to myself, and I can’t do that any more.

I’ve been trying to absorb what that means for myself, but over the past year I’ve found myself making small and hesitant overtures back to at least the part of black culture that overlaps with the tribe I’ve chosen for myself since leaving home. And it’s been a wonderful experience; learning that our shared history and experience can be used to create wildly different stories that are just as vital and interesting and imaginative as a Euro-centric tale is nothing short of a revelation. I’ve been so intrigued by the idea of it, and it’s made me want to dig back into not only my own personal history, but the history of my people to better understand my place in the fringes of it.

So I’ve been dabbling in telling stories borne out of my experience and the way it’s shaped my understanding of the culture I came from. I’ve been seeking out the voices of other intelligent black people who’ve been making a place at the table for themselves within the broader SFF community. I’ve been slowly trying on my blackness, but I’ve had trouble feeling it, had trouble feeling connected to the place where I’ve come from.

That was until I saw The Wiz Live.

For those of you who don’t know, The Wiz is a musical re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz featuring an all-black cast. Most people know it as a somewhat campy 70s movie starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor but it was a surprise hit on Broadway before that, winning seven Tony Awards in its first year (including Best Musical). I had never seen the 70s movie up until now, when NBC decided to put on a live staging of The Wiz as part of its nascent Thanksgiving tradition.

I won’t go into too much detail here, though I can spaz about The Wiz for a really long time. But the musical re-contextualizes everyone’s desires through issues that affect the black community at large in really interesting ways. Dorothy finds herself stuck in a place she doesn’t want to be, though it’s the only home she’s got and she can’t go back to the one she had; the Scarecrow can’t think of a way out of his situation, which is a losing game that he’s forced to play; the Tin Man loved the wrong woman, and now she’s stolen his heart and left him without the ability to feel anything; and the Lion struggles to muster the courage to deal with the very real difficulties he faces in life.

The performances were nothing short of amazing — for the most part. But what really hit home for me were the songs; numbers like “You Can’t Win” and “What I Would Do If I Could Feel” talk about the depression and bitterness that build up through a lifetime of feeling helpless, but “Be A Lion,” the brand-new “We Got It” and “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day” acknowledges the difficulty of the black struggle while also encouraging us to live the virtues that have gotten us this far — perseverance, fearlessness and compassion for the struggles of others. It’s a uniquely black American story, steeped in our culture and concerns. I’ve never seen a story quite like that before, told so excellently, with such care and such pride, on some a big stage. It was a revelation.

It was the first time I felt connected to the community I had come from, or felt like I had a strong sense of its values, its struggles, its worries. It was the first time I ever saw a story that made me feel like this was something specifically told for me and mine. Seeing all of these immensely talented black people stepping up to tell a story to the best of their considerable abilities was….it made me realize what I could be. And it connected me to where I came from.

So now I feel I have a better grasp of my background — not only of my personal history, but the social and emotional history of my people. I’m sure it wasn’t just The Wiz that did it — I’ve been digging around, learning more and pushing myself to interact more — but it felt like a piece of the puzzle that clicked into place and allowed me to see a much more complete picture than I ever have before.

I’m going into my background and the storytelling around it with much more excitement and confidence now. I have a stronger sense of who I am, and an even greater desire to connect to my culture and its history. The specific troubles I went through are shared by a lot of black geeks like me, who find it difficult to be truly who they are while being a part of a community that encourages sameness for its own protection. I want to go back and rejoin it, while at the same time embracing my individuality. There’s a place at that table for me, even if I have to make it myself. It’s something that black geeks are used to doing at this point, right?

The story that I’m writing to put up on the blog this week is my first attempt at writing a furry story from a black perspective. I’m excited to share it, while at the same time I realize it’s just the first step along a path. My understanding of my own history will continue to deepen and evolve, and hopefully my writing will reflect that over time. But for now, the first bit of that journey.

 

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