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Monthly Archives: August 2019

Friday Fiction: Bookkeeping

Writing 150Changeling: the Dreaming is a tabletop role-playing game where you play one of the Kithain, half-fae/half-human creatures who struggle to keep imagination alive in an increasingly banal, hostile world. I created Carver “Bunkin” Johnson for the game’s recent Twentieth Anniversary Edition, and thought it might be fun to imagine him in his native Baltimore during the near-future where climate change is beginning to flood the decomposing city. You know, for varying values of ‘fun’. 

Carver laid out the contents of his backpack on his bed and considered what would be absolutely necessary to bring along with him. He had to travel light so he could grab as much as he could at the library, and he hated to think about the possibility of leaving a book behind because he brought some useless thing or another. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to get down to the main branch again before it closed; this was his one shot to make sure the most important texts were rescued.

The basement of the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Branch was already flooded. He heard that most of the old reference section — ancient encyclopedias and specialized primers on everything from Baltimore’s history to its surviving public records — were damaged beyond repair. Vast sections of the city’s knowledge about itself were lost, now, and chances are they could never be replaced. History would become heresay, whispered down the generations in obscure corners of the city’s families. But the truth…the truth would never be known.

Carver sighed deeply and stroked his long ears to soothe himself. As a Pooka, he had a different relationship with the truth than most. Still, the truth was the template one used to build the more entertaining stories that were his bread and butter. It showed him which parts to exaggerate for effect, which parts to contradict, which parts to move. The truth, after all, often didn’t inspire people to listen to their better angels. Stories did that. But even the best stories needed something true for their foundations; without it, there was nothing to tie flights of fancy to.

The stimulation of the short fur at his eartips made him feel a little better. He opened his eyes and looked at his collection. There was his laptop, his prized possession, far too important to risk being stolen or damaged by water. He set that aside, along with the power cord and mouse. There were four books — a fantasy novel, an anthology of post-apocalyptic short stories, a collection of essays about growing up in the city, and his journal. He kept the essays and journal; he’d need to keep himself entertained on the way there, and you never knew when a drawing or random factoid would come in handy.

Then there were the odder things: three chunks of concrete a bit smaller than his palm; a neon plastic toy that you held in your hand and shook to knock balls at the end of two hinges together; a sheet of molded, transparent plastic roughly five by eight inches; a Crown Royal bag filled with dice and marbles; a plastic sword that looked like it might be a cocktail stirrer for giants. These would be nothing more than trash for most folks, but for Carver they were extremely helpful tools for dealing with the odd runaway dream you sometimes found in the city streets. He kept the concrete, the knocker, the magnifying sheet and the Crown Royal bag — they could be stuffed anywhere in the gaps between books on the way back, if it came to that.

Carver took the rest to an ancient rolltop desk in the corner of his room and squirreled the items away. Then, he turned his back and named every other scrap of furniture in his room out loud. With luck, the desk was protected from anyone who might snoop in his room. It had been a while since Mom had let strangers into the house, but you could never be too careful.

She was in her usual spot on the couch in the living room downstairs. The front door was already open in a vain attempt to cool the place down; a standing fan blew in the cooler air from the covered porch out front, while a box fan ushered out the hot air from the kitchen. That was the theory anyway, but to Carver it just carried the smell of the neighborhood into the house. He wrinkled his nose as he thumped downstairs, his backpack hanging loose from his shoulders. It was only 8 in the morning and the trash in the street smelled like it had been baking for an hour or so. Today would be brutally hot.

“Where you going?” His mother looked at him in the hallway, obviously dressed to go out. “You gonna get me some crabs?”

She was a small but indestructible woman. Her bony limbs and paper-thin skin belied a tireless, patient strength and remarkable resilience — at least physically. Over the years she had gotten more forgetful and confused, unable to keep names and dates straight. Recently, she kept….travelling to other places in her own mind. There was no telling who she thought he was, or where she thought she might be.

Carver smiled at her, swallowing the lump in his throat. The truth was he was losing her, bit by bit. Every day, the fog separating her from reality grew a little more impenetrable. One day, she would disappear entirely behind the glassy expression in her eyes. The story he wove from that truth was that she was preparing to go on a long vacation, and she was taking out the best memories from long-term storage to pack with her. It was his job to help her pick the best ones and fold them well.

“That’s right, Mom,” he said. “Only a few this time, though. We can’t have the whole place stinking like Old Bay and Rolling Rock.”

She laughed, and he broke into a relieved grin. She was with him today. “You know I can eat a dozen of them. Pick me up half a watermelon, too, you hear?”

Carver nodded slowly, revising his mental map to swing by Lexington Market on his way home. “You got it. I’ll be back by this afternoon.”

He watched as she sunk into the couch, her attention stolen by the old movie about a Mormon miracle playing on one of the few channels she could get clear. “You’d better. You know I don’t like being by myself at night.”

Carver did know. The night was when Mom’s brain turned sour, and what feverish nightmares she had stepped out of her head into the shadows. Sometimes, he thought she knew when it would happen. He considered this a warning.

“I won’t. I love you, Mom.”

His ear flicked at her mumbled response, and he stepped out into the day. Carver Johnson was left packed away in his rolltop desk. He was now Bunkin, Savior of Knowledge and Servant of Muninn. He had a job to do, and it would take all of his courage and cleverness to avoid highwaymen, bandits, floods and unhelpful, unpredictable caravans to his destination. He traded one set of worries for another. Life was hard, and living a double life was so much harder.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2019 in Sleepwalkers, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Review) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Reading 150The most shocking thing about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is how pleasantly it presents its dystopian setting. The World State as it exists in AF 632 (or the year 2540 as we know it) is a paragon of monolithic stability where nearly every aspect of life is manipulated by the government. Human beings are lab-grown, given chemicals that will assure their development into one of five separate castes. Once their development is complete, they’re immediately indoctrinated into the beliefs the World State wants them to have: that they are glad of the caste they’re in, they like the activities appropriate to their castes, that consumerist pleasure (sexual and otherwise) is the ultimate goal in life, and that all troublesome feelings are to be deadened through the liberal use of soma, an opiate drug. Everything that could inflame the human spirit — like art, literature, religion, even monogamy — is seen as ridiculous and savage by the enlightened citizens of the World State. 

One man, at least, is not satisfied by this blissful status quo — Bernard Marx, an Alpha human who nonetheless doesn’t conform to the physical or emotional standards of his class. He’s shorter than most Alphas, and his depressive nature exacerbates an inferiority complex stemming from that. Instead of seeking out company and casual sex, he prefers his own company and melancholy thoughts. Lenina, a fetal technician at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center, seems to like him anyway — even though his insistence on being sad is something she can’t understand. 

Bernard and Lenina travel to a “Savage” reservation on holiday and find a World State expat who disappeared decades ago, now quite advanced in age and with a strapping young son. Lenina is horrified by the simple living, different cultural morality, sickness, infirmity, old age, and poverty; Bernard is fascinated by it. When he learns that John, the expat’s son, is the illegal offspring of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Bernard is all too happy to charitably bring both of them to London for a family reunion. 

It really doesn’t work out well for anyone. Linda, the expat, was so devastated by culture shock and the subsequent rejection of her native society, that she disappears into a soma hole. John, her son, is much like Bernard. They’re both disaffected outcasts failed by society, with no emotional outlet to even begin to understand their longing. What’s interesting, though, is that while John rejects the World State that wants to embrace him, Bernard abandons his dissatisfaction as soon as he gets that taste of fame and acclaim. John is determined to remain true to his personal experience, even in the face of alienation and suffering. Bernard starts blowing his social capital like he’s won the lottery, confusing his luck as a mandate to tell the world the way he really thinks. 

The World State rejects Bernard, ultimately exiling him to an island where he can’t participate in society any more. John, however, remains stuck in its suffocating grip to the very end. Both men are ultimately broken by the monolith they rail against, and what’s worse — nothing is changed by it. The vulgar orgies and soma abuse continue. No one treats them as anything more than a curiosity.

And that’s because neither Bernard or John are good advocates for their anti-society stance. Both of them have been emotionally stunted by their background in different ways, and their inability to express the difficult emotions roiling them end up isolating them from anyone who might be able to help. Bernard, to me, confuses his depression for depth in the manner of high school and college kids everywhere but lacks the courage of his convictions to really explore the root of it. Instead of examining his emotions, he turns his unhappiness outward on anyone he feels deserves it. His dissatisfaction isn’t borne out of idealism or empathy; ultimately, it’s selfish and self-serving. 

John, on the other hand, is self-focused because he was never given the opportunity to actually join a society. He was an outcast on the reservation and wasn’t allowed to participate in the rituals and ceremonies that marked his maturation into manhood or the connection to the land that all of his fellows shared. His own mother was too entrenched in her own pain to guide him through his, or to teach him how to work with his ideals. What results is a rigid and miserable man who clings to the devil he knows, unable to find any kind of balance that he might be able to work with. 

Contrasted against the relatively happy (if vapid) citizens of the World State, Bernard and John feel more like warnings about the dangers of individuality than anything else. Citizens are conditioned from “birth” to be satisfied with their lot in life, given jobs appropriate to their predetermined abilities, and allowed their choice of leisure activities. All they have to do to keep society humming along is what, if the conditioning holds, would make them happy to begin with. No one even misses high art or literature. As far as dystopias go, the one in Brave New World is almost seductive in its completeness and effectiveness. It’s actually disturbing to me that it feels that way.

Because, looking around in this day and age, doesn’t it feel like all people want is some way to feel marginally meaningful, occupied and content, with no reason to think any further than their own pleasure? What have free thought and expression provided for us? If the only way to stabilize the human race and ensure its survival is through biological and psychological manipulation, wouldn’t that be better than the suffering and war we have now? 

Brave New World was written in response to the popular utopian novels of the time, a kind of parody to the shiny optimism that had taken hold in post-World War I Europe. Huxley was concerned by the overreach of government, the radical shift in industry brought about by Ford’s assembly line, social manipulation through media, and how the short-term pleasure of people could be weaponized as an element of control. Scientific and cultural advancement is purposefully stunted by the World State in favor of stability and unity; technology as a disruptive influence is simply unheard of.

The World State is a strange hybrid of the worst excesses of capitalism and communism, with its strictly-defined castes and coercion to consume material goods above all else. People are straight-up brainwashed into being agreeable, discarding their own thoughts and feelings to keep the peace and happiness of the group intact. But the craziest thing is that, for the most part, the society works. Even the people who aren’t on board, for whatever reason, are given a place where they can be who they want to be without the pressures of groupthink. 

The effectiveness of the World State is what sets Huxley’s work apart in the canon of dystopian fiction. Most authorities rule through oppressive fear, secrecy, or a more incompetent social manipulation that cannot hold. Seeing an authoritarian society that has somehow managed a (more or less) contented populace forces us to really think about why the World State is a dystopia and not a utopia. Is it simply that our cultural values are so far removed from theirs, or is there some fundamental aspect of the human experience being violated? The citizens of the World State are free to do as they please — only the State has conditioned them to be pleased by State-sanctioned activities. Is it really freedom if society has programmed us to make specific choices? If not, can we truly be free in any form of social structure? 

This is the thing that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the ‘Savage’ in Brave New World. The World State really forces you to think about the value of the individual over society, and what one would be willing to give up for stability. It’s disconcerting to face those questions in a way that makes you reconsider the answers, but that’s precisely what the book invites you to do.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2019 in Novels, Reading, Reviews

 

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Iceman, Vol. 1: Thawing Out (Review)

Reading 150If you’re one of the original five X-Men and your name isn’t Jean Grey or Scott Summers, chances are you’ve got a bum deal. Angel is mostly known for having his wings torn off and replaced by cybernetic ones as one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen. Beast was arguably most popular during his stint with the Avengers team in the 70s and 80s before rejoining his old team and curing the Legacy Virus in the 90s. Iceman, however, doesn’t even have an iconic storyline or fan-favorite supervillain to boost his street cred. Mostly, he’s just known for…well, being a member of the Original Five.

Writers have spent years looking for ways to make Bobby Drake more distinctive. He was classified as an Omega Level mutant sometime ago, but unlike others with the classification (like, say, Jean or fellow X-Man Storm) he’s not one of the first names you think of when an extinction-level threat rears up. Several writers have put work in justifying Iceman’s designation, but nothing’s really stuck in the popular consciousness. More recently Iceman made headlines when a past version of himself was outed as gay by Jean, which raised all kinds of questions. How could he have been gay for this long without any inkling from anyone else (including readers)? Especially when he’s had a bit of a reputation for his love life?

During one of their many recent X-Men relaunches, Iceman was one of the two Original Five X-Men to get a solo series. (The other — of course — was the time-displaced Jean Grey.) The first five issues debuted back in 2017, and I have to admit I gave it a pass at the time. It wasn’t a great time to be an X-fan, and the constant upheavals in the status quo with subsequent relaunches didn’t give me much faith that this title would last. Sure enough, it was cancelled after 11 issues, renewed months later, then cancelled again after six more issues. In this particular age of Marvel, 17 issues is a decent run — but what about the story that was told in that space? The first collection of Iceman, Thawing Out, establishes the “new normal” for Bobby Drake as he tries to figure himself out and live up to his Omega-level potential.

iceman

He’s smiling because he’s finally figured an ice-based gay pun

If I had to describe the first five issues of Iceman in one word, it would be “accessible”. Writer Sina Grace has the unenviable task of making sense of Bobby’s controversial status quo while also providing readers with a compelling reason to see him as a potential ‘leading man’. Iceman has never felt like a big deal; for the ongoing to work, the first arc really needs to establish him as someone capable of anchoring stories as well as Spider-Man or Captain America. However, Bobby’s recent embrace of his sexuality means that he might need to seem like the “same old Iceman” so he doesn’t further alienate a vocal contingent of the comics fandom. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and for various reasons it feels like Grace and the editorial team made a series of choices that put the title into a place that doesn’t appeal to anyone who might be willing to give it a shot.

In the first arc, Iceman struggles to come out to his parents as gay — which makes sense, since they still haven’t fully accepted him as a mutant. The whole affair is complicated by an appearance from the Purifiers and a dust-up with Juggernaut, but when the dust settles there’s at least hope that the cold war between Bobby and his parents can thaw given time. Grace wisely echoes audience sentiment — “Who IS Iceman, really?” — within Drake himself, who states from the jump that his legacy isn’t very strong and he doesn’t have a well-defined self-image. By bundling the audience questions into the narrative, Grace acknowledges the challenge directly while offering an implicit promise we’ll get an answer through Bobby’s journey of self-discovery.

And we get an idea of why it’s so difficult for Bobby to reconcile what makes him different through his parents. It’s clear that his parents’ inability to accept him for who he is makes it hard for him to accept himself; he’s torn between who he feels he is and who his parents want him to be. Anyone who’s spent some time being closeted in their family can relate to this. The tension that comes with weighing your desire to be a part of your family against the need to be true to yourself is so hard to reconcile. But it also feels like Bobby should have pulled the trigger on a decision about this by now. He’s been living this way for years at this point, and he’s been his own man for long enough to decide for himself who he is.

I think that’s one of the reasons why this first arc doesn’t quite work — it feels like it’s speaking to a dilemma we’ve gotten past as a society. Folks who don’t accept LGBQTIA people aren’t likely to be swayed by this story, and the folks who are LGBQTIA don’t quite see themselves in Bobby’s situation. Those still closeted under their parents’ roof don’t have a team of superheroes to lean on, no superpowers to save themselves (or their family) from bigots, no external threats to unite their family. The resolution with Bobby’s parents feels at once too small a win to celebrate but at the same time too easily achieved — he hasn’t really learned to address the flaws keeping him from a resolution, and his parents haven’t really budged from their vague disapproval or dealt with the reasons they have such trouble accepting their son.

Iceman’s core conflict doesn’t drill down into the specifics that would make the story more compelling and Bobby Drake a superhero worth rooting for. We still don’t quite understand why Bobby decided that he didn’t want to be both gay AND a mutant, especially since Northstar is around; we don’t understand how being forced to confront his sexuality is connected to living up to the potential of his mutant powers. Instead, we’re left with the idea that the process of accepting himself has begun and that’s satisfying in its own way.

Sina Grace has spoken out on his Tumblr about his experience writing Iceman, and it is not pretty. According to him, he had little support on the title itself and with the cultural fallout that comes with being a lightning rod in the industry. While paying lip service to the potential to tell diverse stories, Marvel apparently asked him to keep things relatively beige to help its slight chances at being a hit. More assertively gay stories were dismissed, and the arrival of a trans superhero named Shade was not given any publicity. I could easily see Grace being hamstrung from telling the kind of story he wanted by a nervous editorial group, which is a shame.

Because Iceman really does feel like a half-measure on Marvel’s part, telling a difficult story with a series of mis-steps designed to reduce offense instead of speaking truth. It simultaneously acknowledges the hard truths of being gay while diminishing how hard they can be to cope with; it still thinks that featuring a gay character is enough to be progressive. The fact of the matter is they were going to take heat from the same corners of the comics world no matter “how gay” they made the title; it would have been better to take a big swing than the sacrifice bunt they ended up with.

Still, there’s enough to recommend Iceman as a title — especially if you’re a fan of the X-Man himself. It’s just too bad it’s yet another example of a Bobby Drake story that fails to live up to its potential. It’s decent enough, but not nearly what could have been.

 

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(Review) Miles Morales, Vol. 1: Straight Out of Brooklyn

Reading 150The runaway success of last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse raised the profile of Miles Morales in a big way. Created by Brian Michael Bendis in 2011, Miles became the second Spider-Man of an alternate Marvel universe after a cataclysm took the life of that reality’s Peter Parker. It’s been an eventful eight years for Miles. He was a controversial figure during his debut, but has won over fans with amazing stories. He made his way over to the “main” Marvel continuity in 2015 after a “Crisis on Infinite Earths”-type situation that destroyed — then drastically reconfigured — the multiverse, and since then he’s been a key figure of the emerging ‘young superhero’ community. When Into the Spider-Verse dropped, Marvel thought it might be a good idea to give Miles a fresh look with a new ongoing title and a new creative team. Thus, Miles Morales: Spider-Man was born.

For his fourth(?!) solo series, Marvel brought in Hugo Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garron. While it can be a bit of a risk to bring an unproven talent to a new title, here it’s an absolute genius call. Ahmed clearly loves Miles Morales and, even better, knows how to write stories that speak to his multi-racial experience while also being an incredibly fun superhero book. Unlike Bendis, who often came across like he had a ‘dad’s’ understanding of what kids are like these days, Ahmed’s writing feels relatable enough to play in middle America while also providing an authentic window into the life of a 15-year-old New Yorker. If you’re looking to jump in to Miles’ further adventures after Into the Spider-Verse, the first collection of his solo series — Straight Out of Brooklyn — is an excellent way to do it.

Miles Air

Ahmed has a natural talent for comics pacing, quickly establishing Miles’ status quo. He’s a student at a boarding school called Brooklyn Visions, where he shares a dorm with best friend Ganke Lee (who knows his secret identity) and a poet named Judge (who doesn’t). His parents both know about his after-school job, though it appears secrets run in the family — his father, who Miles thought was a cop, revealed himself to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, while his uncle Aaron was unmasked at the super-villain Iron Spider. He’s holding down his grades as best he can, but being Spider-Man doesn’t give him much chance to sleep, so his schoolwork is suffering. But he’s sweet on fellow student Barbara, so things aren’t all bad.

Of course, things won’t remain quite so manageable for long. Barbara’s little cousin, visiting from California, has gone missing! While tracking strange, uniformed people committing crimes, he runs into the Rhino — a gamma-irradiated member of Peter Parker’s rogues gallery whose attempts to go straight often fall apart. The Rhino is tracking the daughter of an estranged girlfriend who also went missing; after the initial obligatory dust-up, the two form an uneasy alliance. Even though he’s just a supporting character for the first arc, Rhino is fully-drawn: it bothers him that people make assumptions about him based on his enormous size, and there’s a weary resignation beneath the ‘frienemy’ banter he shares with Miles. Even Eduardo, the cousin who serves as the macguffin for the story, is allowed to have problems completely unrelated to what’s happening. His father was deported, and his mother is drowning in a sea of bureaucracy trying to gain citizenship for her family.

The first arc is just three issues long, enough to get us grounded in Miles’ world and acquaint us with how he handles the frequent conflicts he has to deal with. So much of his character is revealed through how he interacts with other people in his orbit — whether it’s calming down the hot-tempered Rhino or reflecting on how being around Captain America affects him. Miles is determined, laser-focused, principled, but with the swagger of a Brooklyn teenager. It’s the same heroic template that’s been fueling Peter Parker’s stories for decades, but expressed through someone with a different culture and background. If nothing else, it carries the central idea of Into the Spider-Verse — that Spider-Man has become so iconic he can work as an archetype as well as a character — and proves it through practice. The next two stories are brisk — a stand-alone issue further complicates Miles’ world by making Barbara certain he’s keeping something from her, and a two-part story introducing an intriguing anti-hero ends on a nice cliffhanger that bookends the collection really well. Ahmed knows how to work with momentum here, and it’s impressive the way he juggles the personal and professional crises thrown towards Miles. They connect and complicate each other in interesting ways, constantly throwing our hero off-guard.

Garron’s art is a wonderful complement to Ahmed’s art, dense and lively. The composition is a controlled chaos; figures from one panel bleed out into the next, connecting the disparate parts of Miles’ life in a way that confirms how impossible it is to keep his two lives separate. There’s a great blend of expression panels that ground the characters emotionally, mid-range panels that carry conversation and exposition, and huge splash panels that sell super-powered action. But what’s most impressive is how Garron manages to give each character small touches that provide a sense of consistency. Rhino, for instance, is always looming in every panel he’s in; wherever he walks, he stands in small craters of broken cement or floor. Judge’s body language screams bravado and a devil-may-care attitude; Ganke has a geek’s body language; almost everyone is depicted in a pose that speaks directly to who they are.

Even Miles’ different spider-powers are shown in novel ways, from the ever-reliable ‘Spidey-sense’ to his Venom Sting, to the invisibility that comes in handy for scouting and stealth. Both author and artist are in sync, and it shows. The world they’ve created is crowded and chaotic, but always interesting — much like New York. It’s a fruitful pairing that I hope is given enough time to deepen and mature.

Miles Morales: Straight Out of Brooklyn is a great first collection for anyone looking to continue this Spider-Man’s adventures post-Spider Verse. While it’s anyone’s guess how long the title will last given the whims of Marvel and its endless appetite for new #1s, this is a story that’s worth investing in. Spider-Man has been given a 21st-century update that allows him to keep being your friendly neighborhood superhero, and we even get to visit neighborhoods that feel a bit closer to the ones we live in today.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2019 in Comic Books, Reading, Reviews

 

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A Few Thoughts As I Turn 39

Self Improvement 150This time last year, I had just begun a new job that felt like a new chapter in my life. I had spent nearly ten years at a company that invested a lot in me and gave me an opportunity I’ll always be grateful for, but after a merger had brought about too much change and tanked morale, I thought it would be best to move on. The new job was at a company I was genuinely excited to be a part of — enough that I didn’t mind a pay cut to get my foot in the door. I was optimistic about my ability to grow, and the future of my career.

Now, as I turn 39 years old…let’s say I’m in a very different place. That opportunity didn’t work out, but I learned a lot in what turned out to be a tumultuous year. Now I’m between jobs, looking for my next chance to apply all I’ve learned. I’m less optimistic about the future, but not because I no longer think I can change. I don’t think the world can.

Our leadership is encouraging the worst aspects of our society, and it’s a genie that won’t be put back in its bottle any time soon. Over the course of decades, we have learned to be scornful and distrustful of expertise, become immunized to factual evidence that defy our beliefs, allowed ourselves to be distracted by the constant shouting to assign blame or argue the minutiae of our arguments while the world burns around us. The world has become not smaller but more interconnected, and the intricate nature of those connections require stability to function well. Our relationships to each other, from the personal to the political, have frayed and grown shallow. Because it’s so easy to cut ties with one another, I don’t think many of us even see the value in making deeper bonds. We would rather sit alone in ideological purity than come together to exist as a supportive spectrum.

Meanwhile, dissatisfaction and a sense of entitlement has lead to increasingly brazen attacks on those of us without the institutional power to protect ourselves — people of color and of alternate sexuality, poor people, people with disabilities, people of different faiths. Our government is branding the effort to fight this rising tide of bigotry as terrorism, a literally Orwellian abuse of power that we’ve forgotten about because something worse happens the next day. And the next. And the day after that.

And on top of that, the effects of climate change are happening way faster than anyone thought but our government has hamstrung the ability to fight it, study it, or even discuss it. The rest of the world is moving on without us, even though it might be too late to mitigate the most disastrous effects. The people who would champion a better, greener world are marginalized by their own party in order to preserve what small power they have on the national stage. The party in power has subverted democracy to the point that they only have to cater to a shrinking minority of the population to remain in power, poisoning the system of checks and balances in the service of their own greed.

I’m in a society that doesn’t look kindly on the middle-aged, no matter how kind or thoughtful. I’m struggling to land an opportunity to sacrifice my time and energy for a company that demands loyalty and sacrifice from me, but refuses to offer its loyalty in return. I’m stuck in a system that tallies a list of traits it considers undesirable and diminishes my options based on how many I hit. At this point, it’s a lot.

Given the way I perceive the world as it is, it’s strange to me that I feel happier than I’ve ever been. Even though I no longer have faith in the world, I have more than enough faith in myself and the people around me. I know who I am, and I know who supports me. I know my worth. I know my flaws. And I know how to work towards being the best version of myself at long last. Best of all, I know all the things I cannot control, and have learned how to let go of my desire to control them. All I can do is the best I can. I have to accept whatever happens beyond that.

It’s a scary and uncertain world, but I’ve never been more certain of my purpose in it. This year, I’m resolving to work on deepening my connections with people, becoming a more reliable person, and doing my best to become more openly and unapologetically myself. That’s really the best gift I can give myself at this point. Hopefully, it at least makes my small sphere of influence a better place.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2019 in Self-Reflection

 

The Anxious Person’s Guide to Political Discourse

Politics 150Personal confrontations among friends are a special kind of hell. No matter how much you brace for the conflict, or how hard you try to keep calm, eventually the anxiety takes hold and restraint goes out the window. It’s such an awful experience most of us will do anything to avoid it. Unfortunately, in today’s political landscape, avoiding conflict is increasingly impossible.

After the 2016 election, I found myself struggling to interact with a lot of online friends I had known for a long time. As Trump’s particular brand of bigotry took hold in the US government and we were assaulted with increasingly brazen, cruel policies, a lot of the people I thought were in my corner stepped back and tried to downplay their apathy — or even tacit approval. As 2017 rolled on, I found myself in surprise confrontations that still stress me out to remember. I still struggle with being able to speak openly about my values because I fear the inevitable conflicts they will lead to.

However, near the end of Trump’s first term, as the damage to our social values continues to deepen, I feel it’s more important than ever to be vocal about how unacceptable this is. We have to talk about the bigotry spilling unchecked into our streets and on our computers, and stand up against the violence it has inspired in emboldened right-wing extremists, white supremacists, and Christian fundamentalists. But in order to do this we have to be mindful about our engagement, and that means understanding how our anxiety expresses so we can work with the often counterproductive instinctive actions we take.

As someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, my trigger for the fight-or-flight reflex is much more sensitive — think of it like your car’s low tire pressure going off if it’s anywhere close to the minimum PSI. Mildly stressful situations feel like stomach-churning ordeals; real intense confrontations are simply overwhelming. Everyone who has GAD may have a different experience, but for me even a roll of the eyes or a terse response can be enough to make my heartbeat quicken with worry. The lizard brain takes over and provides you with two options: fight or flee.

In social justice discussions, ‘fight’ can look like arguing with someone online well past the point of productive discourse, or ruminating on an exchange so much it ruins your day, or even lashing out at friends and allies because agreement wasn’t swift or complete enough. ‘Flight’ can look like being silent in the face of unacceptable behavior, or avoiding any news because it’s just too upsetting. Sometimes, it can even mean withdrawing from social contact altogether. The behavior varies, but can often be distilled down to one or the other. I’ve learned that whatever your instinct, the best way to break the reflex and become more mindful is to do the opposite. Engage instead of withdrawing, or hang back instead of going all in.

If, like me, you’re conflict-avoidant in the extreme, sometimes that means you have to stop looking for the exits and stand your ground. I know, I know — it’s stressful just thinking about it. But it really does help to think about different ways you can engage an issue according to the amount of conflict you can handle. There’s absolutely no shame in bypassing direct engagement to find a way to fight back that works for you.

Indirect engagement can be as simple as thinking about the messages you spread on social media, and whose voice you decide to boost. We live in an age where the most enraging take spreads the fastest and farthest; making the choice to be more considerate with what you say online is a wonderful way to push back against that trend. Are the people or organizations we’re sharing and retweeting honest and direct about what’s happening? Do they offer ways to channel anger into action? Are we engaging in discussions in an open and constructive manner? Do we try to keep our focus on solutions, understanding, or finding common ground? If we look through our social media feed and find that the things we retweet frequently make us feel angry or despairing, choosing to change the word we spread can be a subtle but effective way of fighting back against our coarsening discourse.

Another way to fight is by donating your time, money, or effort to a worthy cause you feel passionately about. I really like this method because it keeps you focused on working towards solutions and helps you learn about what people are doing all around us to build a better world. Your time is the most precious finite resource you have, so spending time with volunteer work is honestly one of the most important things you can do. Some of us don’t have the time to spare, so money can work just as well in those cases. Donating to organizations like the ACLU, RAICES Texas, or The Nature Conservancy makes sure that there’s enough in the tank for these groups to keep fighting the good fight.

Sometimes, though, direct action is what’s called for — especially if inappropriate language or behavior is directed towards an underprivileged group you’re not a part of. It’s up to me to make sure other men know it’s not OK to be misogynist or transphobic; it sends the message that even people who aren’t personally affected by an issue stand in solidarity with those who are. And as much as I hate confrontation, I take that responsibility seriously. I think we all should. That being said, there are a few things we can do to make the confrontation as productive as possible.

Remember that you’re interacting with a person. This person is making bigoted remarks, and they might even have a history of bigoted behavior, but try to avoid branding this person a bigot (even though they likely are). Empathy matters, even towards people who we feel might not deserve it. Think about how you would want to be confronted if your behavior needed correction? At the very least, respond the way you would want to be responded to in that situation. Concentrate on the action or statement, and be firm in your disapproval of it — but don’t extend that value judgement to the person. This makes it more likely they’ll be put on the defensive, and defensive people harden against criticism. In order to change someone’s behavior, they have to be receptive. Finally, choose your limit for the interaction. If you decide that a line has been crossed and things aren’t productive anymore, simply restate your disapproval with the action and walk away. You get to decide how to interact with others, and you don’t owe them any more of your time or attention than you’re willing to give.

I’m a runner. I avoid confrontation whenever I can because it stresses me out and ruins my ability to engage with people for a long time afterwards. But over the course of these last three years, I’ve had to learn how to push past that anxiety to have difficult conversations with others. I wish I could say that it gets easier, but it doesn’t; we just get better at handling the anxiety and doing what’s right anyway. And even if a particular exchange doesn’t result in any real change, the encouragement and support I’ve received from others really helps. There’s a community of us out there who are appalled at what’s happening in the world, and who want to do whatever we can to make things better. Just knowing you’re not alone, and that by speaking up you’re letting others know you’re with them, is often enough to remove the block and push me forward.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2019 in mental-health, Politics

 

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